You've walked a good mile in your brother's shoes
'Til your legs could walk no further
And your tired soles would burn
You know there's peace somewhere around the bend
It's been a long time coming
And you're ready for your turn
-"Things That You Know" by the Wailin' Jennys
This wasn't what he expected after his first football game.
When he was a freshman, it seemed like a party atmosphere settled over the school after every game, a sense of elation rising like helium in the hallways. When he'd daydreamed about his first game on the varsity team, he'd imagined something like that. Even after the loss of the game, he spent the weekend telling himself that it was going to be a good week at school.
He got a few compliments, a few fistbumps and shoulder pats, but it just wasn't the same. Everyone seemed so...depressed. Like gray storms had descended. And yeah, he was bummed that they hadn't won the first game of the season too, his first game of the season, but it really wasn't that big of a deal, wasn't it?
He left his fourth period class, his backpack slung across one shoulder, and ducked into the crowded hallway. A couple people called him out, waving at him, and he grinned back. See, this was the kind of thing he'd worked for. And now he'd earned it.
"Morgan!" somebody called, and he turned, but he wasn't expecting to see Hotch striding towards him, Spencer at his heels.
"What's wrong?" he asked.
Hotch tugged him aside, letting the crowd pass them by. "You have history next, right?" he said.
Derek frowned. "Yeah, why?" he said.
"Spencer's fifth period class is in your hall," Hotch said. "Can you walk him to class?"
"I don't need anybody to go with me," Spencer said stiffly.
Hotch ignored him. "JJ and Penelope can get him after fifth to walk him to English comp, and then Alex is going to get him from there to take him with her to the library," he said. "Do you mind?"
"No, I guess not," Derek said. "Come on, pretty boy."
He didn't miss Hotch's look of relief, or Spencer's scowl either. The smaller boy pushed past him down the hall; Derek shrugged and followed him.
He almost lost sight of Spencer a few times. Sometimes he forgot how small the kid actually was, but in the crowd of teenagers he was barely elbow-height to most of them. JJ's borrowed sweater was too big on his skinny frame, and his sun-faded backpack looked like it was a breath away from disintegrating.
He caught up with him on the stairs. "Hey, kid, where are you going in such a hurry?" he said.
"Class," Spencer said shortly. "You don't need to go with me."
"Listen, if Hotch wanted me to go with you, I'm gonna go with you whether you like it or not," Derek said. "You haven't known him as long as I have. When he makes up his mind about something, it's going to happen." He shifted his backpack. "Why does he want me to go with you, do you know?"
Spencer shrugged. "People have been picking on me, I guess," he said. "But I used to navigate the Las Vegas bus system on my own, I think I'll be fine getting through a school by myself," he said.
"Why were you taking the bus by yourself?" Derek asked. "Your parents work a lot?"
Spencer hesitated at the top of the stairs, his hand curling around a spindle since he couldn't comfortably reach the banister. "Something like that," he said.
He picked up his pace again, his thumbs tucked into the shoulder straps of his backpack. Derek kept up with him easily, and when he was close enough he caught him by the shoulder. "Hey," he said, keeping his voice quiet. "You okay?"
Spencer blinked. "I'm fine," he said.
"You didn't sleep all weekend," Derek said.
"How do you know that?"
Derek gave him a gentle little shake. "I'm your roommate, remember?" he said. "I don't think you've slept since the the football game on Friday. You wanna talk about it."
Spencer's insomnia was written all over his face, his big hazel eyes ringed in dark bruises, a stark contrast to the pallor of his thin cheeks. "I-" he started to say, but the bell rang, and he gripped his backpack tighter, his lips pressing together. "I'm going to be late. Thanks for walking with me."
Spencer disappeared into the ninth grade classroom, and Derek bit back a sigh. That kid was physically unable about talking what was wrong with him. Hopefully that wouldn't come back to bite anybody in the ass.
He slipped into his desk as the teacher started taking roll; she caught his eye and shook her head slightly, but she said nothing about marking him tardy. See, this was what he was hoping for. The varsity players could get away with murder. Not that he'd ever attempt murder, but maybe a few little rule infractions here and there.
He opened his history textbook, only half paying attention to what the teacher had to say, but he tuned back when he heard the dreaded phrase group project.
"...this project is going to take the place of your midterm," the teacher was saying. "You'll need to collaborate on the written paper, and prepare a five to ten minute presentation. I'll give you some time today to pick a partner, and you can start working on your project proposals."
The room erupted with sudden conversation and chairs squeaking on the floor, but before Derek could move, someone swooped in front of his desk. "Hi!" Haley Brooks said brightly. Her blonde hair was precisely curled and held back with a dark blue headband. "Want to be my partner?"
"Uh," he stammered. "Yeah, sure."
She pulled up a chair and sat down, setting her notebook and pen on his desk. Both were monogrammed with her initials. "Do you have any ideas yet?" she asked.
"Not really," he said. "How about you?"
"I have a couple," she said, pulling out the teacher's suggested topic handout. Several options were already circled neatly.
He tilted his head to get a better look. "Well, maybe we could-"
"You're friends with Aaron, right?" she interrupted.
He paused. "I don't...I don't think I know an Aaron," he said. She gave him a funny look. "Oh! Hotch. You mean Hotch. Yeah, we're friends."
She uncapped her pen and circled another option on the page. "Do you know if he's single?" she asked casually.
Derek choked. "Yes," he said. "Extremely single. Definitely...definitely single." He cleared his throat. "Any, uh...any reason why you're asking?"
Haley smiled. "No reason," she said. "Hey, great job in the game on Friday, by the way. Sucks we lost, though."
"Yeah, but there's worse things that could happen," he said.
"True, but a lot of people are pretty crushed," she said. "St. Thaddeus hasn't lost the first game of the season in decades. And certainly not to Crievefield." She glanced around to make sure no one was listening, then leaned in closer. "And a lot of people are blaming that little Spencer Reid kid, since he got Willis and Lamb suspended. You should probably keep a close eye on him."
Derek's heart squeezed in his chest. "Why?" he said.
She bit her lip. "I don't know why people are so pissed, they were being awful and he's just a little kid," she said. "And you're right, it was only one game. But...you know how people can be about sports around here. They get a little too intense about it."
"Yeah," he said slowly. He thought of Hotch insisting that he walk Spencer to class, and the dark circles under Spencer's eyes. "Thanks for letting me know."
Alex picked up a stack of books from the cart, double checking the author's name on the spines. "These go in the 920s, please," she said, handing them over to James.
He reached over her head and placed the books in the correct place on the shelf. "How do you do this when I'm not around?" he asked.
"I have my ways," she said. "I'm not that short, you know."
"Yeah, these shelves are just freakishly tall," James teased. She handed him a couple more books and he shelved them where she pointed.
"You know you don't have to do this," she said. "I do this by myself all the time."
"I don't mind," he said. "My homework's done anyway."
She knelt down to place a book on a lower shelf. "Have you heard back from the hospital yet?" she asked. "About the internship?"
"Not yet," he said. "Hopefully I'll hear back soon, though." He raked his hair back from his forehead. "Getting that internship could make or break me getting into a decent college."
She smiled at him as she picked up another book. "I'm sure you'll get it, Jamie," she reassured him.
He smiled back at her, and there was a specific sort of softness in his eyes that he only seemed to manage for her. She paused for a moment, a light warmth heating at the back of her neck even though she wasn't sure why, and the book slipped from her hands to the floor. She picked it up hastily and dropped it on the correct shelf. "Can you hand me the next one?" she asked.
"That's all of them," James said, dropping his hands to the handle of the book cart. "Are there more on the desk?"
"Probably," she said.
He pushed the cart through the stacks; she dropped back behind him. She forgot sometimes how much taller James had gotten, how much taller he was than her now. When they were freshman they were the same height.
The library wasn't too crowded, just a handful of students scattered across the tables. Their own little group had taken over the sitting area by the long-dormant fireplace, a relic from the oldest days of the school. Dave was stretched out on a couch, his homework lying discarded on his lap while he studied his phone. Emily and Spencer sat on the floor together, her blazer wadded up in a heap beside her and her math textbook open between them.
"No, no, you don't multiply," he said, bright and animated, waving around his pencil. "No, see, go through the steps again."
"How does this make sense to you?" Emily complained.
He shrugged. "It just does," he said. "Anyways, see, if you do it like this-"
Alex smoothed Spencer's untidy hair. "Helping Emily with her homework?" she asked.
"Spencer. Tiny genius. Light of my life. I will pay you to do my homework," Emily said.
"That's wildly unethical," he said.
"Out of the mouths of babes," James said. He plunked down on the edge of the couch, startling Dave into dropping his phone. Alex caught it before it hit the floor, then paused.
"Ooh, Hayden?" she said. "David, who's Hayden?"
"Is that the girl you went out with last October?" James asked.
"Heidi, I think."
"No, that was Hannah," Dave corrected. "Can I have my phone back, please?"
"Ah, we have the first David Rossi girlfriend of the school year," James said. "Took longer than I thought."
"She's not my girlfriend," Dave protested. "I just met her at the game on Friday, she goes to Crievefield. She invited me to a party next week-"
Emily perked up. "A party?" she said. She tossed her math book aside, eliciting a startled shriek from Spencer. "Oh my god. Dave. David Rossi."
"His middle name's Stephen," Alex added helpfully.
"David Stephen Rossi. Light of my life."
"I thought I was the light of your life," Spencer protested.
"Please take me with you to this party," she begged. She clasped her hands in mock prayer. "Please. I'm dying of boredom here. I miss parties."
"Hey, we're not boring," James said.
"I've spent more time in a library in the past month than I have in the past year," she said. "No offense, it's not as exciting as a party." She turned around to look at Alex. "Come with me! You'll love it!"
"What about me makes you think that I'd enjoy a wild high school party?" she said dryly.
"Oh, you'd have fun, I'm sure of it," Emily said, waving her hand dismissively. "Please, Dave? Ask if I can be your plus one?"
"I'll see," Dave said. He pointed at her. "But you have to be nice to me. Like, super nice. And if you get wasted, you can't puke in my car."
"I would never," she promised.
There was something different about campus at nighttime. She couldn't quite put her finger on it, but there was a palpable sense of not quite right in the air.
During the day there was nothing to worry about. Green rolling lawns and manicured flower beds, the sun shining down on the belltower, flocks of students in navy blazers and khaki pants and red plaid skirts making their way across polished hardwood floors and broad staircases under high arching ceilings. The whole thing was completely instagrammable, ready to be splashed across a prospective student's brochure.
Nighttime was different. At night the trees seemed too tall and too dark against the sky; the buildings that were charmingly old-fashioned in daylight seemed ominous and half-haunted. The campus seemed too vast, a great expanse that stretched too far. The pathlights lining the cobblestones never offered enough light to make things seem safe. And the whole place was definitely haunted.
Penelope trudged across campus, her phone clutched in her hand. The hike from the dining hall to the theater never seemed as long during the day. If only somebody could make teleportation real. Maybe if she waited long enough, Spencer would get old enough to invent it.
"What's Spencer going to invent?"
She screamed, chucking her phone at the source of the voice.
"Ow! Penelope, it's just me!"
"Oh my god, Hotch, I'm sorry," she said, scrambling to get her phone from where it landed in the dark grass. "I didn't know it was you, and it's so creepy out here, and i thought you were one of those scary security team guys-"
"Wait, wait, what?" he said. "Scary security team guys?"
She ran her hand over the phone screen, checking for cracks. "You know, the guys in the white polo shirts who glare at everybody," she said. She held up the phone close to her face, squinting in the dark. "They caught me taking a shortcut through that old amphitheater that Alex and James told us about. Gave me the heebie-jeebies."
"When did this happen?" he asked.
"Before the football game," she said. "On Friday. I thought they were going to write me up, or kill me on the spot. Honestly terrifying."
"Yeah, I know who you're talking about," Hotch said grimly. "It would probably be for the best that you stay away from them. I've heard things."
She tilted her head. "What kinds of things?" she asked.
"Don't worry about it, just make sure you follow the rules and you'll be fine," Hotch said. "Come on, we'd better go or we'll be late for theatre club."
She grinned. "You just want to see Haley Brooks," she teased.
"No, I don't. I'm really excited for whatever performance we're supposed to do tonight," he said, deadpan. Penelope hid a grin.
Once they were inside the theater, all of her misgivings about the dark and the shadows dissipated. Inside it was lively and bright, a cast recording playing loudly and blurring with the din of multiple conversations. A couple of upperclassmen were trying out tap steps on the stage; for a moment she thought about popping up there to join in, but she felt obligated to keep an eye on Hotch.
It was a little funny to see him like this. Most of the time he was like an adult- honestly, the adult of their group, the tallest out of all nine of them, his uniform always picture perfect and his gold RA pin polished, every hair in place, calm and well-spoken, his face screwed up in a perpetual serious expression burgeoning on a permanent frown. Outside of class, she remembered he was a teenager too, his hair falling over his forehead and his favorite hoodie soft around his shoulders.
She scanned the theater surreptitiously for Haley Brooks. Hotch could play sick and deny it all he wanted, he had it bad for her. His calm cool collectedness fled every time he was around her; he seemed almost shy, stammering awkwardly when he tried to talk. It was absolutely adorable. And she could tell Haley thought it was adorable too. He really didn't need to worry about anything; it was painfully clear she liked him just as much as he liked her. She just showed it differently.
Finally she spotted Haley, standing on the floor in front of the stage talking in animated whispers to Harper Hillman. But before she could point her out to Hotch, Harper shut off the music, earning disgruntled yelps from the tappers trying to dance along. "Guys, shut up!" she shouted. "Everybody shut up. I've got announcements."
Penelope grabbed Hotch's arm and dragged him to a seat in the house. "What's happening?" he whispered.
"No idea," she whispered back.
Harper pulled herself up to sit on the edge of the stage, her dark hair tied up in a messy bun with a striped scrunchie. "Okay, you guys, so I know that we always do a straight play in the fall and a musical in the spring," she said. She rolled her eyes. "Seriously, shut up! This is important."
Penelope drummed her fingertips on her thighs. The theatre program at St. Thaddeus had been the final point to tip her over into picking the school over the other options; she'd been on pins and needles waiting for the show announcements.
"But it's an anniversary year for the NTA, and since everybody knows musicals always do better than straight plays," Harper continued. "Miss A told me she's going to change the shows for this year so we do two musicals instead. A more recent show for the fall, and a classic in the spring."
A frenzied buzz of excitement rose up from the gathered audience. Hotch wrinkled his nose. "Is this...a good thing?" he asked.
"A really good thing," Penelope said. "Plays are great, but Harper's right, musicals sell better. And they always have bigger casts."
"Guys, seriously, shut up!" Harper said, waving her hands. "Miss T is still working on show selections, but we'll have auditions in like, two or three weeks. So I'm changing what we're doing tonight. We're going to work on our books instead. Find a partner to help you go through your book and find a good cut. Remember, you can't go over thirty-two bars, so don't even think about it."
The house erupted into an enthusiastic roar. "What's a book?" Hotch asked blankly. "And was does thirty-two bars mean?"
Penelope was already pulling her plain black binder out of her backpack. "Oh, my sweet summer child," she said. "Every actor has an audition book."
"That's not enough explanation."
She sighed and patted his arm. "Okay, so, when you audition for a musical, you have to come in with something prepared to sing," she said. She flipped open to one of her favorite cuts to show him the page. "You can't sing the whole song, so you have to cut it down to a certain number of bars. The measures. Like this, see?"
"I guess," he said, squinting at the page.
"And if they like your singing, they keep you to dance, and if they like your dancing, they keep you to read," Penelope explained. "Haven't you done an audition before?"
"Nope," he said. His eyes widened. "Pen, do I...do I have to dance?"
"Only if they like your singing," she said.
"Oh, they won't like my singing," he reassured her. "Not that I have anything like this prepared."
Penelope paused. "Hold on just a second," she said, thrusting her binder in his hands. "I'll be right back. Don't even think about moving."
"Where are you-"
She darted into the aisle. Haley was leaning her arms on the stage, tapping the toe of one sneaker idly on the floor as she chatted with Harper. "Haley Brooks!" she said. "Do you have a partner yet?"
Haley straightened up. "No," she said. "But I was probably-"
"I have a hopeless case for you," Penelope said. "Hotch has absolutely no idea what he's doing. I just had to explain to him what thirty-two bars meant, the poor angel."
"Oh!" Haley said. She looked up at Harper, who raised an eyebrow at her. "Well, if you think he needs that much help…"
Penelope linked her arm through Haley's, beaming. All those childhood viewings of It Takes Two and The Parent Trap (despite her four stepbrothers' complaints) were about to pay off.
Hotch was flipping through Penelope's color coded tabs, frowning. The hood of his jacket had slipped around the side of his neck. "Pen, this still isn't making much sense," he said, but as he looked up his dark eyes widened.
"Aaron Hotchner, I've found someone to help you," she announced. "Haley, he's a hopeless case. He'll need a lot of one-on-one work, I'm pretty sure."
A pink blush had begun to spread across Hotch's sharp cheekbones. "I'm, uh...I don't think…" he stammered.
Haley smiled and sat down next to him. "Hopeless case, huh?" she said. She elbowed him lightly. "Don't worry, I've been doing this since I was little. I'll help you."
Penelope pried her binder out of Hotch's hands. "I'll leave you to it," she said, and she sashayed away. Successful matchmaking and a Hamilton reference. She was so good at this.
The bell rang, but Spencer packed up his backpack slowly. He'd learned that if he let everyone else move faster, Neal and Dallas would leave the classroom first, eager to leave for football practice, and he wouldn't have to worry about them. And even though he never said it to JJ or Penelope, they never once left him behind.
He never walked anywhere alone anymore, but he'd stopped protesting. At first he'd bristled against it, sharp and irrational. His mother had always told him he was self-reliant. He didn't need anybody to keep an eye on him. He could take care of himself, like he always had.
But he had to admit that no one bothered him when he wasn't alone. People still looked at him sharply, eyeing him up and down, but if someone was with him, they kept their distance. So maybe it wasn't so bad if he had to be assigned one of his eight babysitters to keep him company on campus.
"So where are we going?" Penelope said as she pulled her hair free from the strap of her messenger bag. "Alex isn't working in the library today, is she?"
JJ pushed the classroom door open as they walked out into the hall. "I think Emily said they were going to the Honeybean after class," she said. "I wish I could go, but I have to go to stupid soccer practice."
"You could always quit," Penelope suggested. "You always say you're dreading it, and you always come back looking like you're ready to murder someone. And as your roommate, I take that personally."
"I can't quit soccer," JJ said. She made a face, pressing her hand to her stomach. "It'll be fine, I'll get over it."
"Are you okay?" Spencer asked.
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. "Yeah, I'm fine," she said. "Kind of a weird stomachache."
"That could be caused by stress," he suggested. "Stomachaches, headaches, sleep disturbances…"
"I'm fine, Dr. Reid, it's just a stomachache," she laughed. "You guys go get coffee, and I'm going to go run around in the hot sun until I puke."
"Stay hydrated!" Spencer called; she waved at him over her shoulder as she walked away.
"Ugh, you couldn't pay me to play on an organized sports team," Penelope shuddered.
"I played T-ball when I was little," he said.
She nudged him playfully. "What do you mean 'when you were little,' half pint?" she teased.
He rolled his eyes. "I mean when I was four or five!" he said. "My dad made me do it, and he was the coach so there was no possible way to get out of it."
"You didn't like it at all?"
"Not a bit," he confirmed. "I was the slowest runner and I cried every time the ball came near me."
Penelope laughed. "Same, though," she said.
They made the trek across campus to the student union and he sighed in relief as they stepped out of the humidity and into the air conditioned building. "I'll be right back," he said. "I'm going to go check my mail really fast."
"Wait, I'll go with you," Penelope said.
"It'll take two seconds, I'll be right back," he promised.
"But Hotch said-"
He was almost on the stairs already. "Two seconds, I promise!" he called back.
There hadn't been a chance to check his mail in a few days. Not that he was expecting a lot of mail- just one specific letter. He hopped down the stairs two at a time, his backpack bouncing against his spine, running the risk of falling all the way to the bottom, already fumbling for his little keyring.
The old-fashioned post office boxes lined the wall in neat gold rows. Luckily his was on the bottom, easy to reach, so he knelt down and fitted the key into the lock.
For the first time, there was a letter waiting for him.
His heart skipped a beat as he reached for it, his fingers trembling. He'd been waiting for so long, and finally-
With a sharp shock he recognized his own handwriting. The scribbled address was half obscured with the red ink of an impersonal stamp.
Return to Sender
He stared at it blankly. It was a mistake. It had to be a mistake. He had it right. He knew he had it right. He'd checked it twice before dropping it in the mailbox.
Diana Reid, ℅ Bennington Sanitarium
But there it was, big and bold and scarlet red.
Return to Sender
He crumpled the letter and shoved it into the pocket of his uniform shorts. One on hand he wanted to throw it away, burn it, tear it to shreds. On the other, he wanted to scrutinize it, check it up and down, search for the error that he could fix so this wouldn't happen again, and he would send another letter, and his mother-
He dragged himself up the stairs, his short legs stretching with each step, his hand clinging to the railing as if it was the only way he'd possibly make it. His heart thunked against his ribs as slow as his steps.
The rest of the group had camped out at the table that was slowly becoming theirs; Hotch was working on homework but everyone else was chatting, cups and half-eaten snacks placed in front of them. He stood in the doorway for a moment, the letter in his pocket burning into his thigh.
Alex caught sight of him before anybody else and waved him over. "There you are," she said, smiling at him. "Penelope said you were coming, we got you a drink."
He forced himself to smile back. "Thanks," he said. He slid his backpack off his shoulders, careful of the broken zipper, and hung it on the back of the chair.
Alex's smile faded, and she tugged him closer, unnoticed under the lively conversation around them. "Are you all right?" she asked quietly. "You're white as a ghost."
He wanted to tell her. He didn't want to tell her. He didn't want anyone else to know, or anyone to overhear. And besides, the words stuck in his throat like he was choking.
His gaze dropped to the neat pile of textbooks in front of her, dictionaries of different languages. He hadn't learned a lot yet, but he'd learned enough, so he signed to her instead, clumsy and hesitant.
Can I have a hug? he asked.
She scooted her chair back and pulled him into a tight hug, her hand pressed firmly to his back. He dropped his head on her shoulder and closed his eyes. The tears burned, sharp and hot, but he wasn't going to cry, he wouldn't. He promised.
After a moment he tried to pull away, but instead Alex lifted him onto her lap. She slid his cup closer to him- he could tell by the scribble on the side of the cup that they'd gotten his new usual drink, a blended white mocha with extra mocha- and shifted him until he was comfortable, already chiming in to rejoin the conversation at the table. Hotch glanced up from his homework and frowned a little in concern, but he said nothing.
Spencer took a sip of his drink, the cold sugar settling on his tongue and calming the overwrought heat in his body. His breath burst out of him in a heavy, shaking sigh, rattling him enough to make his shoulders twitch. Alex gave him a little squeeze, reaching around him to pick up her iced chai latte. For once in his life he had nothing to say, nothing to add to the conversation, but his breathing stopped shuddering in his lungs and he drank his coffee slowly as his silence became more comfortable and the letter faded away to just a pile of folded papers that couldn't hurt him.
Emily pushed the bathroom door open. She hadn't had time to do her makeup before breakfast that morning, and she'd be damned to finish out the day without it.
Of course Alex had shot her that know-it-all I told you so look when she snoozed her alarm one too many times. Alex was always up on time, her uniform always tidy and her homework always always completed on her desk, ready to be packed up. Emily had learned, however, that if Alex started her day with her hair in a ponytail and no makeup, she definitely meant business. Luckily she'd started the day with curls and a ribbon (hunter green today) so things were relatively calm. But of course when they got to breakfast, everyone else had teased her about her bare face. Well, JJ had been pretty quiet, but even Spencer had attempted to crack a joke. At least she could tell it was a playful kind of teasing. They ribbed her because they liked her, which quite honestly was still a new experience.
Emily pulled her makeup bag out of her black Kate Spade bag and dropped it on the edge of the sink. She hated that stupid bag. She'd wanted one of those Kanken backpacks (maybe a red one, she liked red) but her mother had surprised her with the Kate Spade one the day she'd gotten her acceptance letter to St. Thaddeus. The Ambassador had been so goddamn proud of her that day. "This'll be a fresh start for you, Emmie," she'd said. "After everything that happened last year, this might be just what you need."
Emily rubbed foundation onto her face, a little too brusquely, as if she could push the memory away in the process. If her mother knew half the things that happened the year before, she wouldn't be getting a designer bag and her tuition paid to a pricey American boarding school.
Then again, her mother would have a conniption if she saw the state of her bag now. She'd covered it in enamel pins, impulse buys from online stores, almost obscuring the brand logo. More than a few St. Thaddeus girls had eyed her bag in envy, and it gave her the creeps.
She leaned forward on the sink, getting as close to the mirror as she could to paint eyeliner in delicate strokes along her lashline. It had taken quite a bit of practice to figure out how to wing her liner correctly, repeatedly drawing and scrubbing and trying again as she used up her mother's liquid liner without her knowledge. She had it down to a fine art for the most part, but-
The bell rang, startling her into jerking her hand and making a sharp black streak over her temple. "Shit!" she exclaimed. She hadn't even noticed the bathroom emptying out; there was one stall still closed, but other than that everybody else had been watching the time and made it to their next class.
She hadn't cut any classes yet since the start of the school year- honestly, a record for her. At this point she could afford to be late, or miss a class period. Besides, she was going to have to do some repair work to get her eyeliner balanced out again.
"Fuck," she said, her voice bouncing off the tile walls as she rubbed at the stray line. She switched to Italian as she kept cursing; it was somehow more satisfying.
She jumped again. "What the fuck?" she said. She capped the liner and turned around. "Who's in here?"
She frowned and dropped the eyeliner in her bag. "Are you okay?" she said.
There was a long pause. "Yeah," JJ said in a small, wobbly voice.
"You don't sound okay," Emily said. "Are you dying? I need to tell you know that if you're puking, I'm out. I don't do puke."
"No, it's not that, it's…"
She heard JJ sniffle. "Seriously, what's wrong?" she said. "Are you sick? I can-"
"I think my period started!"
Emily froze. "You think?" she said.
Another pause. "No, no...I'm pretty sure," JJ said.
"Do you need tampons or something?" Emily asked. "I've got-"
"It's my first one!"
Emily swallowed hard. This was not at all a situation she was equipped to handle. "Uh…" she said blankly. "Do you...do you want to go to the infirmary or something? Or do you want me to call Alex? I feel like Alex would be better-"
"No!" JJ wailed. "I don't want to go to the infirmary! And don't tell Alex, I don't want anyone else to know!"
"You know it's nothing to be embarrassed about," Emily said. "I don't know why people get so weirded out by periods, it's-"
"Emily, it's my first one, and I don't know what I'm doing, and I just...tell me what to do!" JJ burst out.
Emily pressed her fingertips to her temples. "Okay," she said. "Okay, uh...well, let's go back to Lincoln House, okay?"
"What about class?" JJ asked, her voice small again.
"Fuck class," Emily said. "Sometimes other things are more important." She dropped her makeup bag back in her bag and closed it up. "Now come on. You can't stay in here all day."
She waited, only somewhat patiently, for JJ to emerge. It took a while, but eventually she unlatched the door and stepped out of the stall, her face red and puffy from crying. "Hey, you look-" Emily started to say, but partially through her sentence she realized that maybe that mentioning that she'd been bawling her eyes out wouldn't be the best thing to do. "You look like you could to stand to miss class for a day."
JJ washed her hands slowly at the sink. "Am I going to get in trouble?" she asked.
"You'll be fine," Emily said. "Listen, I've learned that all you have to do is tell a male teacher that you're on your period and they freak out and don't ask any more questions." JJ half laughed at that. "Seriously, though, let's get out of here. School is the last place you want to be when you feel like shit."
They made it back to Lincoln House without being stopped; JJ unlocked her dorm room door and dropped her bag in the middle of the floor. "Make yourself at home," she said.
Emily looked around. "You know, I've wondered what it would be like to room with Penelope Garcia, and now that I'm seeing her side of the room I think I might have more questions," she said.
"Yeah, it's like living with a tech savvy Jojo Siwa," JJ sighed.
Emily put her hands on her hips. "Okay," she said. "So...do you have stuff?"
JJ raised an eyebrow. "What kind of stuff?" she said.
"You know," Emily said. "Stuff. Tampons, Midol…" Her voice trailed off. "Didn't your mom get you prepared for all of this?"
"Not really," JJ admitted. "My mom said I was probably going to be a late bloomer since my…" Her voice trailed off. "No, she didn't really tell me anything. Did your mom tell you?"
"No, my au pair," Emily said. "She was a hell of a lot more helpful than I'm going to be." She drummed her fingers on her hips. "Go take a shower. That'll help. I'm going to run back to my room real fast and get some shit. Can I take your keys?"
JJ nodded. Emily grabbed her own keys but left her bag on the floor.
This was not a situation she was equipped for. At all. She was bound to say the wrong thing, and that was the last thing JJ needed. She had never been responsible for another person before. Hell, she'd never had to be responsible for herself.
She dug through her cluttered side of the room, trying in vain to think back to what her au pair had said and done when she was eleven. That seemed like a lifetime ago. And a couple of countries ago. It was the Ukraine, maybe. Definitely before Italy, she knew that much.
She threw everything into a tote bag (Alex wouldn't mind) and slammed her dorm room door. Simultaneously she slammed into Alex.
"What the hell?"
"Sorry, I was in a hurry," Emily said, extending a hand to help her up. "I didn't see you. What are...what are you doing here?"
"It's lunch, and I forgot my book," Alex said. "Are you okay? You only have eyeliner on one eye."
"Well, shit," Emily said, rubbing at her face. "Yeah, I'm fine."
Alex's eyes narrowed. "Why do you have my bag?" she asked warily.
Emily bounced on the balls of her her feet. "Okay, you didn't hear this from me," she said. "She'll kill me. She doesn't want anybody else to know, but I'd feel better if I told somebody…"
"Emily," Alex interrupted. "What's going on? Who's going to kill you?"
"JJ got her first period," Emily said. "And she's freaking out, and I'm freaking out, and isn't this something that moms should handle?" She paused. "Oh my god, I should have had her call her mom."
"Okay, deep breaths, Em," Alex said. "It'll be fine, it's not the end of the world. Is she okay?"
"I think so," Emily said. "I mean, she's not dying or anything." She bit her lip. "Can you come with me? Just in case?"
"I thought you said she didn't want me to know," Alex said.
"Yes, but I need an adult."
Alex made a face. "I'm not an adult, Emily," she said. "You guys know that, right? I think everybody forgets that I'm seventeen."
"You're very mature for your age," Emily said. "Please, Alex? I'll pay for you at the Honeybean for the next month."
"Fine," Alex sighed. "But I'll have to go back to class when lunch is over."
It was more of a relief than she expected to have Alex there. No matter how Alex protested, she was definitely the mom friend out of their squad. JJ probably needed a mom friend for this situation. And Emily wasn't much a mom friend. More like a vodka aunt. Or a White Claw cousin.
Unlike Roosevelt House, with a bathroom shared between the occupants of two bedrooms, Lincoln House had communal bathrooms for every four dorm rooms. Emily could hear the shower running as she approached the bathroom closest to JJ's room.
"Hey, Jayje," she said as she peeked inside. It wasn't as nice as Roosevelt House either- three toilet stalls, three shower stalls, a bank of sinks. "I got you some stuff. I'm putting it next to your clothes."
"Thanks," JJ said, her voice almost drowned out by the sound of the shower.
"You feeling okay?"
"Well, I think my uterus is falling out, but other than that, I'm fine."
Emily grinned. "Yeah, that's a good description for it," she said. "I'm gonna go chill in your room, okay?"
Alex had already made herself comfortable on Penelope's bed with a book in her hands. "How's she doing?" she asked.
"She says her uterus is falling out," Emily reported as she sat down on the edge of JJ's bed, and Alex cackled.
"Jesus, she's not wrong," she said. "I remember when this happened to me. It was the summer before I started here. Scared the absolute shit out of my brothers." She shifted around on the bed, trying to keep herself from falling off. "How does Pen sleep like this? This bed is eighty percent stuffed animals and pillows."
"Half of them end up on the floor," JJ said. She stood in the doorway in a ballet school tee shirt and leggings, her long blonde hair dark and wet against her shoulders. She bit her lip. "You told Alex?"
"I ran into her," Emily explained.
"Literally," Alex added. "She said you didn't want anybody to know, but she wanted me to come over anyway. And I promise I won't tell."
JJ's lower lip trembled. "Is it normal to feel this shitty?" she asked.
"Unfortunately, yes," Alex said. She set her book down. "You're going to feel shitty, but it'll get easier. And you can talk to any of us about what's going on. No judgement, I promise."
JJ nodded, and some of the tension seemed to relax from her shoulders. Emily rummaged in the borrowed tote bag. "I've got this," she said, brandishing the bottle of Midol. "It'll help, I swear."
JJ took it. "Thanks," she said quietly.
Alex rummaged around in her bag and pulled out a water bottle. "Stay hydrated," she said. "That'll help too." She frowned. "How did you get so many tangles in your hair? Give me your brush."
JJ handed her a sky blue brush and a brightly colored bottle of kid's spray detangler from her nightstand. "Sorry in advance, I'm tenderheaded," she warned Alex as she sat down on Penelope's bed.
Alex spritzed her wet hair, filling the air with the scent of artificial green apple. "I need to get some of this for Spencer," she said absently as she drew the brush through her long blonde hair. "His hair is always so tangled."
Mom friend, Emily mouthed at JJ, and she hid a laugh. "Nice shirt, by the way," she said aloud. "You take ballet?"
"I did," JJ said. "My whole life, it feels like."
"My mom put me in ballet when I was six," Emily said. "She made me take classes until I was thirteen."
"Did you like it?" JJ asked.
"Absolutely not," Emily said. "I mean, I could do it, but I've never been more miserable. She tried so hard to get me to take ballet here, but I told her there was no way that was going to happen."
JJ perked up. "They have ballet classes here?" she said.
"Uh-huh, and I've definitely taken enough ballet for a lifetime," she said. "I don't think I remember anything about it." She slid off JJ's bed and stood in a long-forgotten fifth position in the middle of the floor. "Let's see if I can still do this…"
She tried to turn, the thick soles of her Doc Martens catching in the carpet, and barely made one rotation around. JJ giggled. "What was that supposed to be?" she teased, sounding more like her normal self.
"A pirouette," Emily said. "Did I not do it?"
"That's not how you move your arms, you looked like an electrocuted pigeon."
"It's better than what I could have done," Alex said. "I wasn't meant for anything in the arts. I can't dance, and my dad says I sing like a cat getting its tail stepped on."
JJ laughed, her blue eyes brightening. "I can't sing much either," she said. "But dancing…" Her voice trailed off. "Thanks for staying with me."
"You're not mad that I told Alex?"
"No," JJ admitted. "I mean, she's the mom friend, after all."
"Why do people keep saying that?" Alex said. "How did I become the mom friend?"
"Well, it's not going to be me, Emily, or Penelope," JJ said.
"Definitely not me," Emily said. "Besides, you told me you spend all your summers babysitting. You've got the most experience raising children."
"I don't think that's how it works," Alex said. "And I'm not raising anybody in our group."
"No, that's definitely how it works."