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Patron Saint of Lost Causes

Chapter Text



Burn it down, till the embers smoke on the ground
And start new when your heart is an empty room
With walls of the deepest blue


And all you see is where else you could be
When you're at home
Out on the street are so many possibilities
To not be alone


--"Your Heart is an Empty Room," Death Cab for Cutie


"Don't look at me like that, Emily. It won't be that bad."

Emily gritted her teeth, her fingers locking around the strap of her carryon bag. The airport was freezing and she was regretting the choice to not bring a jacket. "Easy for you to say, Mom," she said. "You're not getting shipped off to boarding school in a different continent."

Elizabeth sighed. "Honey, this is for the best," she said. "St. Thaddeus is a great school. And it's about time for you to spend some time in America with normal kids, instead of getting dragged all over the world with me."

"But I like getting dragged all over the world," Emily argued. "And I love Italy, I want to stay here. I have friends here, Mom, and-"

She stopped abruptly. She hadn't told her mother about Matthew yet, and she wasn't about to now.

"...and I want to stay here," she said instead.

Elizabeth leveled her gaze. "You know that's not an option anymore, Emily," she said.

She shrugged. "You could pull some strings."

Elizabeth shifted her purse from one arm to another. "Not anymore, not at this point. I don't know what's been going on with you, Em, but trust me. I'm trying to do what's best for you."

"You could always send me to live with my dad," she said flatly.

"Enough," Elizabeth said, cool and clipped, and Emily bit back a sigh. Conversations were always over when her mother used her ambassador voice. Elizabeth glanced at her watch. "You should get to your gate. Your flight is going to start boarding in twenty minutes."

Emily's shoulders slumped, the fight draining out of her. She had already known deep down that she wasn't going to win this battle- she came by her stubbornness honestly- but she still didn't want to give up without a fight. "Mom, I don't want to go," she said. "Please don't make me."

"Sweetheart, you have to," Elizabeth said, touching her cheek lightly. She kissed her forehead. "Be safe. Call me as soon as you land. A driver is already scheduled to take you from the airport to the school." She pressed the boarding pass and passport into her hand. "I love you, Emily."

Emily nodded. "Love you," she echoed.

She shouldered her carryon and made her way towards her gate without looking back, her heart beginning to thump in her chest. International flights were nothing new, even traveling alone wasn't new. She was adept at finding her own way, forging her own path. She was sixteen years old, she could handle this.

But at the same time, she was only sixteen years old, and she was about to spend the next semester in a different country, at a new school, and for the first time in her life she didn't have the lodestone of her mother anchoring her in place.

Emily waited quietly at the gate until her boarding group was called; she was one of the first to take her seat on the plane. She sat alone by the window, fiddling with the cheap silver locket around her neck.

No going back now, she thought. You'll be fine, Prentiss. Suck it up.

JJ stood quietly next to her mother as she chatted with her new resident advisor, surreptitiously gazing around the main hall. When she agreed to go to boarding school, she didn't think it was going to be this large. There were more kids here than in her public school back home in Pennsylvania.

"So you've already gotten her textbooks?"

"Yes, and we confirmed her uniforms, and had her photo taken for her student ID."

"Then the only thing left is to get your keys and get you moved into your dorm room," the RA said cheerfully. "What's your last name, sweetie?"

"Jareau," JJ said, and she spelled it out as the RA flipped through her files.

"Aha, there it is," she said. "It's nice to meet you, Jennifer. I'm Tara, I'll be your RA in Lincoln House this year."

"I go by JJ," she said.

Tara smiled. "JJ it is," she said. She handed her a silver key and a red plastic fob on a keyring. "So Lincoln House is on the left side of the courtyard, you can't miss it. Right now all the doors are open for move-in day, but starting tomorrow, that fob will let you in and out of the building. The key is for your room, you're on the second floor in 212. I think your roommate's already moved in."

JJ rolled the cool metal key around in her fingers. "How long do we have to get her settled?" Sandy asked.

Tara checked her watch. "It's nine-thirty now, you'll have until five tonight," she said. She handed a red folder to Sandy. "There's plenty of information in there- a map of the school, your schedule for orientation week, important phone numbers. And that includes mine, so don't hesitate to call me if you need me."

"Thank you so much," Sandy said, shaking her hand. "Come on, JJ. Let's get you moved in."

JJ followed her mother obediently through the crowd, staying close to her side. Not only was St. Thaddeus larger than her school back home in Pennsylvania, it was a rich kid's school, all mahogany walls and marble floors. Suddenly this seemed like a very, very bad idea.

The courtyard behind the main building was beautiful, a main cobblestone square surrounded by emerald green grass and orderly rows of azaleas and hollybushes. Posterboard signs with cheerful bubble letters and balloons in bright primary colors marked the way.

"There we go, Lincoln House, right over there," Sandy said. She wrapped her arm around JJ's shoulders. "Looks nice, doesn't it?"


Sandy gave her a little squeeze. "I think this is just what you need, sweetheart," she said. "A fresh start."

"Sure," she said, and she slipped out from her mother's embrace. "Let's go. I want to see my new room."

Lincoln House wasn't nearly as fancy as the main hall. The lobby was a little plainer and little homier, with plain yellow walls and a scuffed hardwood floor. A tired upperclassman boy in a red tee shirt that said "RA" in big yellow letters sat at the desk next to a sign pointing towards the stairwell.

"Second floor isn't too bad," Sandy remarked. "Not too many steps."

JJ shrugged. "It's fine."

Each door on the second floor was marked with construction paper hearts listing the names of the occupants. A couple of doors were already decorated with other things- sports banners, streamers, little whiteboards with scribbled messages. JJ pulled out her key as they reached room 212 and turned it in the lock.

One side of the room was left plain and stocked with standard dorm room furniture- a twin bed, a nightstand, a desk and chair, a dresser- and the cardboard boxes they'd shipped ahead of time from Pennsylvania were stacked neatly on the floor. The other side was already decorated.

Extremely decorated.

The comforter on the bed was vibrant pink and covered in sequined pillows, a glittery lava lamp bubbled on the nightstand, and the walls were decked in posters. A large iMac stood on the desk, and every square inch of space left was covered in a vast array of brightly colored figures of animated characters and cute animals.

"Well," Sandy said. "Your roommate seems fun."

JJ stared. "Uh-huh."

Sandy clapped her hands cheerfully. "Well, let's get you unpacked, okay?" she said. "You get started, I'm going to go give Dad a call. I'll be out in the hall if you need me."

"I'll be fine," JJ said. She pulled the tape off the top of the first box in a neat single strip and started pulling out clothes.

Her dad hadn't wanted to come with them. He had claimed he was too busy, and that it would be fun for them to have a mother-daughter trip. But she wasn't stupid. She knew he didn't want to come.

"Oh, hi!" a voice chirped behind her. JJ dropped the dress she was unfolding. "Sorry, sorry, I didn't mean to startle you. I have that effect on people sometimes."

JJ turned around slowly. "Hi," she said.

"Hi, yourself," her new roommate said. She was around the same height as JJ, and also blonde, but her hair was tied up in two buns with purple bobbles and her eyes danced behind a pair of chunky pink glitter glasses. "I'm Penelope Garcia. I think you're my roommate?" She peeked around to the front of the door. "It says Jennifer. Are you Jennifer?"

"I, um...I go by JJ," she said. She was getting the impression that her roommate was less of a human and more of a living Lisa Frank character.

"JJ, perfect, I love it, it suits you," Penelope said. She picked up a blue sharpie marker from her desk, plucked the construction paper heart from the door, and scribbled on it. "I'll fix it. There. So much better." She slapped the heart back on the door. "Lovely."

JJ blinked. " already moved in, I guess?" she said.

"Uh-huh," Penelope said. She frowned, dug around under the sea of pillows on her bed, and grinned as she pulled out a Macbook covered in stickers. "I did the whole early admission thing. Got here yesterday." She plunked down on her bed. "So you're a freshman too?"

JJ threaded a hanger through the dress in her hands. "Mm-hm."

"Oh, perfect," Penelope said. "Sometimes they mix up grades, and I was like...ugh, what if they put me with an upperclassman with no sense of humor? And I'm only thirteen, I skipped fifth grade, so I'm the youngest student in the ninth grade here."

"That's cool," JJ said, smiling as she hung up her dress in the empty half of the small closet. "I'm fourteen."

"Do you need any help unpacking?" Penelope asked eagerly. "I'm extremely bored, and I'm extremely good at organizing."

JJ laughed. "Sure," she said. "I think that box has books, if you want to do those."

"Perfect!" Penelope said, jumping off her bed. "Where do you want them? Don't worry, you're in good hands."

"When you two offered to help me move into my dorm room, I thought you know. Actually help me."

Rossi grinned and flipped a page in his magazine. "I'm offering moral support, that's helpful," he said. Alex rolled her eyes and he tipped farther back on in her chair, his feet propped up on her desk. "Hey, I'd do more, but James already offered to do all the heavy lifting."

"Listen, I would pay money to see David Rossi doing heavy lifting," she said. "And you know I'd be helping you two, if you were boarding instead of day students."

He turned another page in his magazine. She knocked his shoes lightly and his chair came crashing back down on four legs. "Hey!" he yelped.

"My room, my rules," Alex shrugged.

James hobbled into the room, lugging a cardboard box. "I found it, it was at the front desk, it was labeled wrong," he huffed. "Jesus, Alex, what do you have in here?"

"Books, probably," she said. She tugged the lid back to take a peek. "Yep. Books."

James sighed. "Where do you want them?" he asked.

"Oh, no, you've done enough, make Dave put them away," she said.

"You're the one who works in the school library, why don't you do it?" Rossi protested.

James ruffled his hair. "Come on, Dave, I believe in you," he teased.

Alex brushed her hands off on her shorts. "I'm going to get a drink out of the vending machine, I'll be right back," she said. "James, keep an eye on him." She grinned at Rossi. "And if those are my dictionaries, I'd like them in alphabetical order by language, please."

"Yes, ma'am," Rossi sighed. He pulled the box open. "Great. Her dictionaries."

James laughed. "You heard her," he said. He picked up a book and chucked it at Rossi. "We told Alex helped."

"No, you told Alex we would help," Rossi corrected. He frowned at the cover of the French-English dictionary and chucked it on the shelf above the desk. "And you only told Alex we would help because you've been hopelessly in love with her since our freshman year, and now that we're seniors you're running out of time."

James ducked his head. "Come on, Dave, it's not that easy…"

"It is!" Rossi said. "It is that easy, Blake! You ask her to go with you to the coffee shop in town on the weekend. Or you ask her to a dance. Hell, you pass her a note that says 'do you like me, check yes or no'."

James flushed red up to his ears. "Listen, just because you've gone out with every girl in our grade doesn't mean you're qualified to give me advice on my love life."

"Or lack thereof."

"You haven't gone past a third date! Ever!"

Rossi shrugged. "Que sera sera," he said. He held up a dictionary. "What language is this?"

"Uh...Welsh, I think."

He held the book at arm's length. "Huh," he said. "That's a new one for her." He shrugged and dropped it on the shelf.

A dark-haired girl peeked around the door as she knocked lightly. "Hi. This is 612, right?"

"Yeah, sure is," James said. "Are you Alex's new roommate?"

The girl walked into the room and sighed heavily as she dropped a monogrammed carryon bag on the floor. "I think so," she said. "God, there's so much walking on this campus. And why don't you guys have elevators?"

"Around here they believe that stairs build character," James said, amused. "You're new, I take it?"

"Yeah," she said, and she stuck out her hand. "Emily Prentiss."

"James Blake," he said, reaching out to shake her hand. "This miscreant over here is David Rossi."

Rossi held up a dictionary. "Pleasure," he said.

Emily brushed her dark hair back from her face; her thick eyeliner and mascara had smeared a little bit around her eyes. "But I'm guessing neither of you are my roommate," she said. "Somehow St. Thaddeus School doesn't strike me as the kind of forward-thinking institution to allow co-ed dorm rooms."

"You are correct," Rossi said. "Your actual roommate would be-"

Alex nudged the door open with her hip, her hands full. "All right, James, I got you a coke, and Rossi, I got you orange because you're a weirdo-"

"And we got you a roommate," Rossi said as he accepted the drink. "And orange soda isn't weird."

"Yeah, it is. All the sodas in the world, and you pick that one," Alex said. She cracked open her Dr. Pepper. "I'm Alex Miller. You're Emily Prentiss, I take it?"

Rossi could see the girls sizing each other up- Alex with her neatly tied ponytail and her school band tee shirt and her white keds sneakers; Emily with her heavy makeup and black-painted fingernails and heavy Doc Martens- and took a slow sip of his soda. This isn't going to end well, he thought.

"Well, welcome to Roosevelt House," Alex said. "Do you need help getting unpacked? Between the four of us we can probably get everything set up pretty quickly."

"No, I'm good," Emily said. "I can do it myself."

Alex shrugged. "That's fine," she said. "Do you-"

But Emily had already popped a pair of airpods in her ears, effectively tuning her out, and was tearing open the top of a box. Alex sighed. "Oh boy," James teased. "And you were looking forward to having a new roommate for your senior year."

"Hush," Alex said, elbowing him lightly in the ribs. "She can't be nearly as bad as last year's."

Hotch sank down in his chair, biting back a yawn. It was almost six, and he'd been up since five running around up and down the stairs in Lincoln House getting new students moved in. And that was after the past week of prepping for orientation. He hadn't slept more than a few hours a night since he'd gotten on campus.

He stretched out his legs and watched new students hustle in and out of the lobby. It was worth it, at least. Becoming a resident advisor meant he could spend his junior year in a single room without a roommate, plus extra money in his flex account (especially since god only knew his aunt and uncle wouldn't give him any). And if he had to be in charge of the seventh floor and deal with a bunch of unruly high school boys, it would be a pretty decent trade off.

A basketball bounced on the hardwood floor and he bolted upright. "Hey, cut it out," he said. "You guys know better."

Derek Morgan fumbled to catch the ball before it could bounce again. "Yeah, yeah, sorry," he said with a broad grin.

"Funny, you don't sound very sorry," Hotch said, rolling his eyes.

Morgan tucked the basketball under his arm. "And you don't sound super excited to have me on your floor this year," he said.

"How could you tell?" Hotch said dryly. He sat up in the chair and cracked his neck. "Are you trying out for football?"

"Hell yes I am!" Morgan said. "I heard we got a new coach. Maybe this one will let underclassmen play varsity."

"Even with a new coach, your odds aren't great," Hotch said. "Varsity is almost always the upperclassmen from Roosevelt and Kennedy. A sophomore from Lincoln has better luck getting struck by lightning." Morgan frowned. "Don't look at me like that. I don't want you getting your hopes up too high and then moping around for the rest of the semester like you did last year."

"C'mon, man, I was a scrawny little freshman last year," Morgan said. "I finally hit my growth spurt, they didn't assign me a roommate so I get the whole place to's gonna be my year, Hotch."

"If you say so," Hotch shrugged.

Morgan punched him lightly on the shoulder. "What about you?" he asked. "You gonna go out for baseball in the spring?"

"Probably not," Hotch said. "I don't have the time for extracurriculars."

Morgan perched on the arm of Hotch's chair and balanced the basketball on his knees. "Listen, I know you're focused on getting into law school, but lighten up a little, man," he said. "I'm sure you have a little time somewhere for having fun."

"No, my schedule's full," Hotch said. "And no basketballs in the dorm lobby."

"You're no fun at all."

"I'll compromise," Hotch said. "I'll let you leave it in the lobby closet. It's almost time for dinner."

Morgan craned his neck to look at Hotch's watch. "Oh shit, really?" he said. "Hold on, let me put this away."

"Make sure you get it after dinner!" Hotch called after him. He pushed himself out of the chair and stretched his arms above his head, finally giving into the yawn he'd been trying to hold back.

Morgan poked him in the side. "No wonder you're in such a bad mood, you need a nap, dude," he said.

"I'll sleep when orientatation is over," he said. "Come on, let's go."

The courtyard was quieter now that the sun was beginning to set; the orientation team was taking down the balloons and posterboard signs. He followed the familiar path to the dining hall, Morgan at his heels.

"Uh-oh, we got some lost freshmen," Morgan said. He nodded towards them. "Ten o'clock."

Hotch sighed. Two girls were standing on the path that led towards the science building, looking around in visible confusion. "Hey, you two," he called. "Where you headed?"

"The dining hall," the girl with pink glasses said. "I didn't think I needed a map, and I was sorely mistaken."

"Well, you're going the exact wrong way, baby girl," Morgan said.

The girl raised an eyebrow and his smile vanished quickly. "Baby girl?"

"I'm sorry, I didn't-"

"That's so cute!" she said. "My first school nickname. I love it. Adorable."

The other girl turned to Hotch. "Do you mind showing us around?" she asked. "We're a little lost."

"Not at all," Hotch said. "Stick with us. What's your name?"

"JJ, and this is Penelope," she said. "You're in Lincoln House too, right?"

"Yeah, I'm the seventh floor RA," Hotch said. "Where are you two?"

"Second floor, with Tara Lewis," JJ said.

Hotch opened the double doors to the hall. "You're lucky, then, she's one of the good ones," he said. "Come on, let's go. Hurry it up, Morgan."

Energetic high schoolers packed into the huge dining hall, the room buzzing with excited energy and buzzing with hundred of conversations. Alex picked her way through the crowed and set her tray down on the table next to Rossi and James. "Scoot, you guys," she said. She handed James a napkin. "I knew you'd forget."

"Oh, shit. Thanks."

Rossi set down his water glass. "So what do you think of your new roommate?" he asked.

She glanced back at the cafeteria line; Emily trailed behind the students in front of her, absently picking at her already-chipped black nail polish. "Not sure yet," she said. "I don't think she likes me all that much, that's for sure."

"Eh, give her time," Rossi shrugged. "Everyone struggles at a new school. And she's better than the girl with the rubber duck obsession."

"And the girl who kept eating your poptarts and borrowing your laptop when you weren't there," James offered.

"Or the girl who kept trying to sneak her boyfriend over."

"Rossi, the boyfriend was you," Alex said dryly.

Rossi shrugged. "She was the worst." Alex tore off part of her roll and tossed it at him.

Emily set her tray down across from James. "I hope you guys don't mind, I don't know where else to sit," she said.

"No problem," Rossi said. He waved his hand, dropping breadcrumbs from his roll. "Join the party. James and I are heading out soon anyways."

Emily frowned. "Why?"

"We don't live on campus," James explained. "Rossi and I commute. We're in Kennedy House. We've got a building of our own, but the dorms are just for Kennedy kids that want to stay overnight on occasion."

"And we have Cruze for our head of house, so we can get away with practically anything," Rossi added. Alex elbowed him. "I said practically."

"So what's the difference between Roosevelt and Lincoln?" Emily asked. "They're both dorms, right?"

"They are, but Lincoln is for the…" Alex paused.

"The troubled kids go to Lincoln," Rossi interrupted.

She sighed. "They're not bad kids, don't say it like that," she said.

"I'm right, and you know it," Rossi said, pointing his fork in her direction for emphasis

"What's that supposed to mean?" Emily asked as she hacked off the corner of her lasagna. "Is it like juvie or something?"

"Not exactly," Alex hedged.

"Lincoln is for at-risk kids that scored really high academically, or have some kind of potential that interests the school," James explained.

"But some of those kids should have gone to juvie instead," Rossi said. Alex elbowed him again. "Stop hitting me, Alexandra."

She rolled her eyes and switched to Italian. "You have got to get your head out of your ass. Just because your parents own half the town doesn't mean you can be a jerk," she said.

"I'm not being a jerk! I'm being honest. Some of those kids definitely should have gone to juvie," he argued.

James dropped his fork in his salad. "Guys, cut it out, you know I hate it when you speak in Italian to each other and leave me out," he complained.

"You could learn," Alex said to him as she picked up her water glass. "We've tried to teach you."

"And you know how bad I am at it."

Rossi raised an eyebrow. "Think of it this way, bibliotecaria," he said slyly, switching back to Italian. "We can gossip about your roommate and she won't have any idea."

"Roommate speaks Italian," Emily announced. She nudged her plate away. "And this lasagna is shit."

James burst out laughing. "Oh, man, Rossi, you didn't see that one coming."

"Not so fast, Blake, this means three of us can speak in Italian without you," Alex countered. She grinned at Emily, who tentatively smiled back.

James dropped his chin in his hand. "Goddammit," he sighed.

He had been wandering the campus for the past half hour, completely lost. There were no signs pointing his way, and he didn't have a map, and it was dark. It wasn't his fault that he'd missed orientation day, it wasn't his fault his flight got delayed.

He stopped in the middle of the path, gripping tight to the straps of his backpack, and swallowed down the babyish urge to give in to the tears that threatened to fall. This was not the time to cry. He could do this.

Other students walked past him in little groups of twos and threes, chatting with their new roommates and laughing over jokes that he didn't hear. He needed to ask him somebody to help him. But he had never been very good at that.

He wandered along the path, staring up at the night sky that had never seemed quite so big or quite so full of stars at home, until he suddenly collided with someone taller, sending him sprawling on the ground, eye-level with a scuffed pair of Doc Martens.

"What the fuck?" the girl said, bemused.

He squinted up at the strange girl. "I'm sorry," he said quickly. "I didn't-"

She held out her hand, a rack of bracelets jingling on her wrist. "Are you okay?" she said.

The girl's friends caught up to her. "Jeez, Prentiss, you've been here twenty minutes and you're already beating up underclassmen?" one of the boys teased.

"Rossi, cut it out," the other girl sighed.

"I kid, I kid," Rossi shrugged. "Don't read me the riot act, Alex." He crossed his arms. "Speaking of kid, who's this?"

He adjusted his backpack on his shoulders. "Spencer Reid," he said. "I'm new."

"Yeah, that I could guess," Rossi said, but he didn't sound like he was teasing to be mean. He wasn't sure, though, he was never good at figuring those things out.

"Are you lost?" Alex asked. "This is a pretty big campus, everyone gets turned around for the first couple of days."

"I missed orientation day," he said, and he could feel tears pushing against his eyes. He wasn't stupid, he wasn't a crybaby, he would have been fine if he had a map.

"What do you mean?" the other boy said.

He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "My plane was delayed, I don't know why, I think it was a problem with an aileron, so I ended up landing late, and no one was there to pick me up, so I had to figure out the bus system, and I take the bus system all the time back home but it's different here, so I only got here an hour or two ago, and-"

"Okay, motormouth, okay," Rossi said, but he didn't sound upset, he was laughing a little. "We get the picture."

"So you missed everything today?" Alex said. "You don't have any of your paperwork or your room key?" He shook his head. "That's okay. Do you remember which dorm you were placed in?"

"Lincoln House," he said.

Rossi looked at James and raised an eyebrow. "We'll walk you over there and figure out where you're supposed to be," Alex said. "Or at least Emily and I will. I think the boys have to hit the road."

"Yeah, probably," James said. "Nice to meet you, Spencer. We'll see you around, okay?"

He nodded. Alex touched his shoulder lightly, steering him down the path. Emily followed and stuck her hand in her jacket pockets. "I'm new too," she offered. "Fucking sucks, doesn't it?"

"I don't know, I think it's at least marginally better than my old school," he said. "There's also a lot more grass here than back home."

"Where's home?" Alex asked.

"Las Vegas," he said. "There's some grass, but only very specific drought-resistant varieties can grow. Did you know that zoysia grass is native to Asia, but it's been in the states since 1895?"

"No, I didn't know that," Alex said.

She walked him towards a large stone building with broad double doors propped open, leading to a well-lit lobby. Spencer stayed close to Alex's side, Emily trailing behind them. A dozen kids were hanging out, scattered across the lobby, but Alex made a beeline for the dark-haired upperclassman boy behind the desk. A couple of kids surrounded him. Two blonde girls sat on top of the desk; the one with pink glasses was talking way too loud and way too fast, flailing her hands around.

"...and so that is how season five ended, it was supposed to be the series finale, but it got renewed for a sixth season, and so the first episode of season six, there's a one year time jump-"

The boy sitting on the floor dropped the basketball he was attempting to spin on his fingers. "Wait a minute, wait a minute, how many seasons does this show have?"

"Fifteen. So anyways, in season six-"

He threw his head back and laughed. "Baby girl, we haven't even started the first day of classes yet, slow your roll," he said. "You've got plenty of time to explain all fifteen seasons."

"Fine," she sighed. "JJ, you'll watch with me though, right? I have all of it downloaded to my computer."

The other blonde girl shrugged. "Sure."

Alex cleared her throat. "Hi. I'm guessing by the shirt that you're an RA?" she said.

The oldest boy glanced down at his red shirt with the yellow RA letters. "Uh, yeah," he said. "Can I help you?"

"I found one of your kids," Alex said. "This is Spencer Reid. He missed orientation day, but he's in Lincoln House."

The RA paused, looking Spencer up and down. He was used to that look. It happened a lot after he skipped four grades in elementary school. Spencer pulled his welcome letter out of his pocket and silently handed it over.

He skimmed it quickly and handed it back. "Oh, Jesus," he said. "Hold on just a second, I'll go check in with the head of house and see if I can get his file." He got up, sliding JJ out of his way.

"Your boots are amazing," Penelope said to Emily, leaning to one side to get a better look.

"Thanks," Emily said. "Nice...glasses."

The boy on the floor got up, tucking his basketball under his arm. "So you're Spencer?" he said. Spencer nodded. "I'm is Penelope and JJ. Hotch is the RA...well, my RA, at least, I'm on his floor."

He offered them a half smile. There was too much happening, and the lights were too bright, and the lobby was too noisy, and for the first time in a long time he wished he could stay in Vegas and not have to deal with any change.

Hotch strode back towards them, followed by an older man in a well-worn maroon sweater. "Spencer, this is our head of house, Jason Gideon," he said.

Gideon held out his hand. Spencer usually avoided shaking hands if he could help it, but he tentatively shook it anyway. "I've been wondering where you've been, Spencer Reid," he said. "We didn't have a phone number to reach you or your parents."

"I don't have a phone," he said. "And my parents-"

He broke off midsentence, but Gideon either didn't notice or chose not to. "Luckily, you've already met your RA," he said. "You'll be on Aaron's floor, rooming with Derek Morgan."

"Oh, shit!" Derek said. "I thought I was gonna get a single room this year."

"Watch you language," Hotch warned.

Gideon didn't seem to notice. "We'll get your key and the rest of your paperwork in order tomorrow," he said. "It's getting late, we'll worry about the details later." He grinned. "I'm sure Strauss won't like that I'm disregarding procedures again, but unlike Strauss, I understand when the rules need to be bent a little bit." He turned to Alex and Emily. "Speaking of which, you two ladies should get back to Roosevelt House before she realizes you're not there."

"An excellent point," Alex said. She patted Spencer's shoulder lightly. "I'll see you around, Spencer, okay?"

Emily raised her hand in a peace sign. "Bye, kids."

Hotch looked at his watch. "Yeah, it's getting late," he said. "JJ, Penelope, you two had probably better call it a night. Morgan, let's get Spencer moved in." His eyes narrowed. "And no more basketball in the lobby. I mean it."

"Fine," Derek said, rolling his eyes. "Come on, kid. Where's your stuff?"

Spencer rolled his shoulders, try to ease the strain of his heavy backpack. "This is it," he said.

"Did your parents send your stuff ahead of time? I didn't see anything in the room other than Morgan's things."

He screwed up his face. "," he said.

Derek tossed his arm around his shoulders. "It won't take long to get you unpacked, then," he said. "Let's go, kid."

Spencer had said he didn't have a lot of stuff. Morgan was not prepared for how little he actually had. As soon as they got to the room, Spencer set his ratty backpack down and started pulling out the contents- books, mostly, from the look at it.

"You need some help?" he asked.

"If you want to," Spencer shrugged, handing him a book.

Morgan frowned at the cover. "The Mab...what is this?"

"The Mabinogion," Spencer explained, pushing his hair out of his eyes. "It's a compilation of some of the earliest prose stories found in Britain. They were originally written in Welsh. Well, Middle Welsh. Did you know that 'w' is actually a vowel in the Welsh language? It makes a kind of 'oo' sound. And technically they have twenty-nine letters in their alphabet."

"I didn't know any of that," Hotch said.

Spencer unpacked his clothes into a pile along with a toothbrush and a half-used tube of toothpaste. "That dresser's yours," Morgan said.

He paused. "The whole thing?"

"Yeah, the whole thing," Morgan said. Spencer hesitated, then dumped all of his clothes into the top drawer. "That works too."

Hotch frowned. "You're in ninth grade, correct?" he asked. Spencer nodded. "If you don't mind me old are you?"

Spencer hesitated. But Morgan was glad Hotch had asked, he was kind of curious himself. Spencer was small and thin as a rail, his hair shaggy and his clothes two sizes too large for him. He definitely didn't look like he was thirteen or fourteen.

"I'm ten years old," he confessed. "I skipped second grade. And third, and fourth." He paused. "And fifth."

"So...are you a genius or something?" Morgan asked.

Spencer scrunched up his face, making his nose wiggle like a rabbit's. "I have't had my IQ tested yet, but it's a distinct possibility," he said. "Researchers aren't sure of the ideal age for testing, so I'm just waiting until my brain develops a little more." He shook out a navy fleece blanket on his mattress and set his backpack on the floor. "I'm unpacked. Where's the bathroom?"

"Down the hall," Morgan said. Spencer picked up his toothbrush and toothpaste and walked out. Morgan immediately rounded on Hotch the second he was out of earshot. "This isn't just me, right? Something's not right."

Hotch's perpetual frown deepened. "He doesn't have any bedsheets, or even a pillow," he said. "No family photos. And nothing sent ahead from home. Literally...just what he could carry in his backpack."

Morgan yanked the drawer under his bed open and pulled out an extra set of sheets. They still smelled a little bit like home, and he knew his mother had folded him neatly for him. "He can borrow these," he said.

"I've got at least one extra pillow," Hotch said. "But I'm going to bring this up to Gideon in the morning."

They made quick work of covering up the bare mattress. Hotch had just set the pillow down when Spencer walked back in and stopped dead in his tracks. "Where did those come from?" he asked.

Morgan opened his mouth to answer. "They're school provided," Hotch said quickly. "So breakfast starts at eight tomorrow. Make sure you're ready. We'll go talk to Gideon afterwards." Spencer nodded. "G'night."

The door closed, and Morgan was left alone with his new roommate. Spencer quietly took off his sneakers, set them neatly on the closet floor, and sat down on his bed. He looked a little lost and dazed, his legs tucked up to his chest and his chin resting on his knees.

"Hey, don't worry," Morgan said. "St. Thaddeus is a good school. There's a lot of rules, and classes can be kind of tough, and some of the rich kids suck. But..I think you'll like it here."

"Thanks," Spencer said, not meeting his eyes. Morgan was starting to get the uneasy feeling that the kid didn't know to react when people were nice to him. "Can I go to sleep?"

"Yeah," Morgan said, a little surprised. "Yeah, that's cool. I'll be ready for bed in a second, I'll turn off the lights-"

"You can leave them on," Spencer said. He laid down, pulling the blankets up to his chin. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight," Morgan echoed, more than a little confused.

I hope the rest of the school year isn't this weird, he thought.

Chapter Text

They say times are hard for dreamers
And who knows, maybe they are
People seem stuck, or lost at sea
And I might be a dreamer
But it's gotten me this far
And that is far enough for me

It isn't where I am
It's only where I'll go from here
That matters now
And I am not afraid!
As everything I'll ever need appears
This is how my world gets made

--"Times Are Hard for Dreamers," from Amelie

"Penelope, you're sure this is the way to the dining hall?"

Penelope hesitated. "I think so," she said, looking around the courtyard. It was early enough that it was a little cool outside, but decidedly humid, and the dew in the grass was getting her shoes wet. "It's harder to tell in daylight. It was darker last night. And honestly I wasn't paying a lot of attention. Do you remember?"

JJ pulled her long hair over one shoulder. "Let's just wait for someone else to go by and follow them," she suggested.

Penelope sighed. She hadn't left her room once she'd moved in, opting to hide out in her cozy pink sanctuary and live off her snacks until she'd ventured out with JJ the night before. Now she wished she'd spent more time exploring before move-in day stated. It was a beautiful campus, all old stone buildings covered in ivy and cobblestone paths lined with trimmed rosebushes and the forest and the mountains looming outside the manicured lawns, but it was so much bigger than she had realized. Maybe I should have kept that map after all, she thought.

But she brightened as she caught sight of several familiar figures crossing the opposite direction. "Oh! Let's follow them!" she said. "Hotch! Derek! Hey! We got turned around again!"

The two boys stopped and turned around; Spencer kept walking, his nose in a book, but Hotch caught him by his shirt collar and tugged him back. "Did you two seriously forget where the dining hall is already?" he asked, exasperated as Penelope jogged to catch up, JJ trailing behind her.

"In our defense, it was dark last night, and JJ wasn't paying attention," Penelope said. JJ shot her a look. "Okay, wasn't paying attention. But I'll totally remember after this."

Hotch shook his head and steered Spencer down the path, the rest of the group following close. "What are you two gonna do tomorrow when classes start?" Derek snickered. "The two of you are gonna end up wandering into all the wrong rooms."

"It's fine, Derek," Hotch said. "We can go on a campus tour later. The two of us can show the new kids around."

"Aw, man, I was gonna go for a run," Derek complained. "Football tryouts are tomorrow."

"You'll have time," Hotch said, rolling his eyes. "Schedule pickup starts at ten, and the extracurriculars fair starts at three. I'm sure we can walk around campus and leave time for you to work out in between." Spencer tripped on a rock and Hotch caught him by the back of his shirt. "Spencer, buddy, maybe now isn't a good time to read."

"I'm at a good part," Spencer objected, but he closed the book with a heavy sighed and tucked it under his arm.

Penelope craned her neck, trying to look at the title. "Whatcha reading?" she asked. He held it up. "The Jungle? Is that like...The Jungle Book?"

"Oh, I liked that movie when I was little," JJ said.

"The animated one or the new one with Bill Murray?" Derek asked.

"No, the other one, the old one from the nineties."

"It's not The Jungle Book, it's just The Jungle," Spencer corrected. "By Upton Sinclair. It's a novel, but it exposes the unsanitary lack of regulation in the meat packing industry in the early 1900s. That's what helped lead Theodore Roosevelt to pass the Meat Inspecting Act and the Food and Drug Act. There's a scene where a kid dies because he got locked in a closet at his job and he gets eaten by rats."

"Okay, maybe let's not talk about people getting eaten by rats before we eat breakfast," Hotch said. He opened the door to the dining hall and Derek held it open. "Spencer, let's hold off on the book for right now. You can read later."

Penelope wrinkled her nose. "Maybe read never, if it's about people getting eaten by rats," she said.

"All right, we're done, no more talking about rats at breakfast. Get in line."

Penelope picked up a tray and followed behind Derek. She wasn't much a breakfast person- back home in California she usually grabbed poptarts to eat on the bus to school- but the St. Thaddeus cafeteria looked pretty good. "Hey, Derek, save from French toast for the rest of us," she said, reaching under his arm to grab the tongs away from him.

"Hey!" he said, trying to grab it back. She held them above her head and stuck her tongue out at him.

Hotch grabbed them from her hand, picked up two pieces, and set them on Penelope's plate. "Enough," he said. "Derek, you have six pieces. I think that's enough to start."

"Fine," he grumbled.

Hotch clicked the tongs like a middle aged dad manning a grill. "JJ, do you want some?" he asked.

"I don't like French toast," JJ said. "It's too...eggy."

"So I'm guessing you don't want any scrambled eggs."

She leaned over, looking down the line at the silver pan full of fluffy yellow eggs, and recoiled. "No way," she said. "I'll just get a bagel or something."

"You can't function on just a bagel, get some fruit at least," Hotch said. He looked down. "Spencer? You need a hand?"

Spencer leaned on the rail and jumped, stretching out his little arms in attempt to get a plate off the rack. "Yeah, kinda," he huffed. 

Hotch picked up a plate and set it on his tray. "They didn't build this school with ten-year-olds in mind, I guess," he laughed. "What do you want?"

Spencer peeked over the edge of the rail. "French toast, please," he said. "With a lot of syrup."

"How much is a lot?"

"I'll tell you when."

Penelope scooped a heap of melon chunks, strawberries, and grapes onto her plate. "JJ, do you want some?" she asked.

JJ scrunched her nose. "Melon is so gross," she said. "It's like eating wet styrofoam."

"JJ. I said get some fruit," Hotch said. "Spencer, this is more than enough syrup."

"Just a little bit more…"

"Absolutely not."

JJ sighed and picked up an apple. "I guess I'll eat this," she said reluctantly.

"There's some cereal over there," Penelope suggested, nodding towards the little bar set up against the wall. "Looks like they have Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, Cinnamon Toast Crunch-" JJ immediately left the line, leaving her tray behind.

"Take the apple!" Hotch called.

"I got it, I got it," Penelope said.

Hotch shifted Spencer's plate onto his tray. "All right, keep moving, keep moving," he said. "Spencer, go get utensils for everybody, okay?" Spencer nodded and darted off through the crowd.

"Follow me, baby girl, I'll pick a table," Derek said. Penelope followed him, balancing the tray carefully. The dining hall was bustling now, students filling up the long rectangular tables and screeching their chairs on the floor. Derek picked a table on the middle right, against a wall, and set down his tray.

"Is it always this busy in here?" she asked.

"Oh, yeah, just wait till tomorrow," Derek said. "I'm gonna get some juice. You want anything?"

"Ooh, yes, some chocolate milk, please," she said, twisting around in her chair. She winked. "Thanks, sweetness."

He blinked. "Did you...did you just call me sweetness?" he said.

"Well, if you're going to call me baby girl, I need something to call you," she said with a shrug. "I'll keep trying. Oh, and can I have a straw too please?"

He shook his head, grinning, and walked away. Spencer nearly collided with him, his hands filled with silverware. "Whoa, pretty boy, watch you're going!" Derek said. "Didn't your mama ever tell you not to run with knives?"

"No," Spencer said. "Although I guess it's pretty sensible." He stopped and scrunched up his face. "Did you just call me pretty boy?"

"I think nicknames are just his thing," Penelope said. "You'll have to come up with a name to call him."

Spencer looked Derek up and down, frowning. "Well, okay...Pudge Heffelfinger," he said slowly. He looked at Penelope. "How was that?"

"Terrible," she informed him.

"Yeah, I don't even read Harry Potter," Derek said.

Spencer tilted his head. "I don't understand," he said. "William 'Pudge' Heffelfinger was the first professional football player in 1892. I thought it would be topical, since you're interested in football."

Penelope turned to Spencer. "Honey, 1892 isn't very topical," she said. She tilted back to look at Derek. "And're not a Hufflepuff. Definitely a Gryffindor."

"Is that good?" he asked warily.

"It can be. Go get your juice."

Spencer climbed onto the chair next to Penelope, sitting on his knees as Hotch and JJ caught up to them. "Spencer, sit on your butt or you'll fall on the floor," Hotch said. He set down Spencer's plate full of syrup in front of him, two pieces of French toast floating in the middle like tiny islands, then set an orange down next to it. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and checked thet time. "Okay, great. We have plenty of time before pickups start."

"What are we picking up?" JJ said, shoveling cereal in her mouth before it could get too soggy.

Hotch dug into his scrambled eggs. "Schedules, textbooks, uniforms," he said. "The last of the important things."

Derek set down a glass of chocolate milk decked with a straw. "Here you go, baby girl," he said.

"Oh, perfect," she said, beaming up at him. "Thank you."

"Derek, can you keep the girls company while I take Spencer to Gideon's office?" Hotch asked.

Spencer paused, his fork halfway to his mouth. "Do I have to?" he asked.

A big glob of syrup dripped off his fork onto his shirt. JJ silently handed Penelope a napkin and she handed it to Spencer, who immediately rubbed at the drop. "Yeah, we'll just make sure everything's in order with all the stuff you missed yesterday," Hotch said. He looked up from his eggs. "Don't worry, I'll go with you. And you met Gideon, he's nice."

"Is he nice? He's mostly just intimidating," Derek said, his mouth full of bacon. Penelope elbowed him lightly. "Oh. Uh...yeah. He's real nice." Spencer sat back, still kneeling on the chair, and still not looking very reassured.

Penelope took a sip of her chocolate milk and cleared her throat. "So we've established that Derek is a Gryffindor," she said, attempting to change the subject. "I'm a Hufflepuff with extremely strong Ravenclaw tendencies. How about you guys?"

"Are those real words?" Hotch asked. "Or did you just make that up?"

David checked his watch as they strolled out of the dining hall. "We have another hour till pickups start," he said. "What do you guys want to do?"

Emily fiddled with the bracelets jangling on her wrists. Normally she didn't think twice about her outfits- she'd put in a lot of work to assemble her collection of rare vintage band shirts- but she had the sneaking suspicion that she stuck out like a sore thumb next to the boys in their polo shirts and shorts, and especially next to Alex in her light blue tank top and denim skirt. They looked like wholesome summer camp counselors, and she looked like a vampire that woke up too early. But...that was fine. She liked what she wore.

"I don't know," she said. "What do you guys do around here? Cell service is shit, and it's not like we can go off campus."

"Oh, we can go off campus," James assured her. "It just takes at least twenty minutes to get anywhere." Emily rolled her eyes.

Alex tightened her ponytail. "Why don't we walk around for a while?" she suggested. "Show Emily the sights."

Emily kicked at a rock; today the Doc Martens she wore were a maroon color with black laces. "The sights?" she repeated. "Back home the tourist attractions are, like...the Trevi Fountain and the Sistine Chapel. Don't get your hopes up, I may be slightly underwhelmed by a boarding school campus."

David brightened. "Wait, are you actually from Italy?" he asked, switching easily to Italian.

"Yeah, I lived in Rome for the past two years," she said. "My mom's an ambassador. We've lived all over the place. Ukraine, Japan, a couple of place in the Middle East."

"I love Rome," David said. He was clearly fluent, but there was a weird little quirk to the way he spoke. "I have family in Italy."

"Oh, really? Where?"

He took a left turn down the path and she kept up with him, Alex and James trailing behind. "Sirmione, near Milan," he said. "I've visited there every summer since I was a kid."

"Milan?" she repeated, wrinkling her nose. "Oh, that explains the accent."

"I don't have an accent!" he exclaimed. "I'm actually Italian. I was born with the correct accent."

Alex slipped in between them. "Chill," she said firmly. "It's too early in the morning for a passionate Rossi argument." She spoke fluently too, but she'd clearly picked up a little bit of David's accent. She paused. "Where's James?"

David glanced back over his shoulder. "I think we lost him," he said. James was far behind them, hands in his pockets, strolling at a quarter of their speed while he gazed at his surroundings.

"He probably zoned out when we started speaking Italian," Alex said. "We've tried teaching him and he's hopelessly terrible. You think Rossi here has an accent." She cupped her hands around her mouth. "James!"

He looked up, startled, and jogged to catch up. "Sorry, I got distracted," he said. "What did I miss?"

"Um...Emily's lived in a lot of international locations, and she said Rossi has an accent," Alex said.

"I do not have an accent," he grumbled under his breath.

"Regional dialect," Emily offered. She sighed deeply. "How about you guys show me those sights you were talking about."

"Absolutely," James said. "We'll give you the grand tour."

She was not interested in the sights, but they were being pretty nice to her, all things considered. Especially since the three of them had clearly been friends for a long time, and they'd accepted her pretty much immediately.

What would they think of you if they knew why you got sent here? a little voice whispered in the back of her mind, but she pushed the thought away.

"So you've already seen the main building," James was saying, gesturing broadly. "Most classes are there, and the offices. It's the oldest part of the school, it was built in around 1893. And you've seen the three dorm buildings, and the dining hall."

Emily glanced back at the paved paths lined with flowerbeds and dogwood trees. Already the main building looked small. "Jesus, this campus is bigger than I thought," she said.

"It was a work farm at one point, these were all pastures," Alex explained. "St. Thaddeus was built as an all-boys school, then became an orphanage during the Great Depression, then a work farm for juvenile delinquents in the forties and fifties. Then it became a school in the sixties."

James pointed to a little white church across the way, stained glass windows shining in the morning light- the early coolness had already faded, giving way to bright sun and humidity that crawled down Emily's neck and threatened to soak into the neckline of her black tee shirt. "That's the chapel," he said. "We have chapel every day, whether you're religious or not, prepared for that."

"Oh, my school in Rome was Catholic, don't worry," she said. "Is this school Catholic?"

"Originally, but now it's just 'non-denominational'," David said. He actually used finger quotes and she had to bite back a laugh. "Catholic in name only now."

"There's the amphitheater," Alex said. "It's not used very often, but we like to do our homework over there when it's nice. You'll see- everybody on campus has their favorite places. There's lots of places to hide out here."

"For sure," James said. "My dad told me that when he went here, they used to have giant games of flashlight tag on weekends. They had stop because one kid hid in the rose garden for so long he missed class on Monday." He grinned. "That was my dad."

The paved walkway had given way to a dirt path, worn through the grass and beaten down by hundreds of footsteps. "Are we walking all the way down to the creek?" Alex asked.

"Sure, why not," David shrugged. "Emily doesn't strike me a sports person, so we might as well go there instead of the fields. Especially since we'll have to walk by them when we go to the gym for pickups."

"Yeah, not too much of a sports person," Emily said. "The creek is fine."

The farther they walked, the more overgrown the path became, long grasses swaying and catching at her jeans and snagging her skin through the purposeful rips in the fabric. Clusters of Queen Anne's lace and purple thistles bobbed cheerfully, hidden by the grass. She could hear the creek before they reached it, the soft heavy rushing of water.

"Watch your step," Alex warned. "The ground gets a little softer here."

Emily had spent her entire childhood visiting museums and historic landmarks with polished floors and playing in private parks so well-designed it was almost impossible to get dirty. She wasn't quite prepared for the sight of the creek- wider than she expected, with a slight drop off of the bank and smooth rocks scattered on either side. Tall Tennessee oaks lined the sides, growing thicker on the opposite bank until they stood so close that the distance looked like a single mass of dark green foliage.

"It's no Trevi Fountain, but it's pretty nice," James said.

"Yeah," she said. "Yeah, it's nice."

"A lot of the freshmen kids like to come down here and go crawdaddin'," Alex said.

Emily made a face. "What in the fresh hell is that?" she said.

"They catch crawdads," David explained.

"Kind of like little baby lobsters," James added helpfully.

Emily drew back, the pretty creek suddenly losing some of its allure. "Yeah, no, that sounds disgusting," she said, keeping her Doc Martens away from a particuarly wet patch of dirt. She paused, a silver glint catching her eye. "What's that?"

James followed her gaze. "Oh, that's the electric fence," he said.

"The electric what?"

"It's a safety precaution," James explained. "The creek marks the boundary of the campus, and they don't want us going out into the forest. Sometimes the orienteering club is allowed to go out there on trips, but never after dark, and they always have like ten teachers and the security team with them."

"The security team?" Emily said. "What the hell kind of school is this?"

"It's to keep us safe," Alex began, but David interrupted her.

"It's to keep the Lincoln House kids in line," he said. He picked up a rock and skipped into the creek; it bounced twice before sink with a wet plop. "The charity cases."

"They're not charity cases," Alex said. She sounded weary, as if this argument had already happened in circles a million times before. "And they're not bad kids.”

"Listen, Emily, the Lincoln House kids get placed there because they're troubled," David said. "And don't argue with me on that one, Alexandra, that's literally on the application form." He picked up another rock and chucked; it made half a skip before sinking in the water. "They're kids that were getting in trouble or acting out at their old schools, but their testing scores were high enough to get them into St. Thaddeus. That's the goal, try to get those bad kids- don't give me that look, Alexandra- get those bad kids on the right path."

James tossed a rock and it skipped four times, hopping across the water until it hit the shallows on the other side. "Alex is right, though, a lot of those Lincoln House kids are good kids that got stuck in bad situations," he said. "And they're not all charity cases. A lot of parents pay a lot of money to get their kids in St. Thaddeus so they can get their heads on straight."

"Yeah, but you know that that's where all the scholarships go," David said. "And Lincoln House-"

"Hey! You're not supposed to be out this far!"

Emily jumped. A man in a white shirt was striding towards them through the tall grass. To her surprise, David waved at him.

"Hey, Marty," he called.

The man in the white shirt approached them, but he was smiling. "Hey, David," he said. "Good to see you, kid." He nodded to the others. "Hey James, Alex. And who's this?"

"Emily Prentiss," James said. "She's new this year, a junior."

"Yeah, she's my new roommate," Alex said, shielding her eyes from the sun.

The man held out his hand; after a moment Emily shook it. "Hey, Emily, nice to meet you," he said. "I'm Marty Bennett. I'm on the security team here. Welcome to St. Thaddeus."

"Thanks," she said.

Marty took a step back, squinting. "You showing her around?" he asked. David nodded. "Yeah, it's real pretty out here. Just remember, don't go past the creek, okay?" He looked at his watch. "You kids should probably head to pickups, it's just about time."

"Oh, shit!" David said. "Yeah, we should go. Good to see you, Marty."

"You want a ride? I got the pargo."

"Yeah!" James said. "Let's go!"

Emily followed them back towards the grass-lined path; a golf cart emblazoned with the St. Thaddeus emblem was parked nearby. She sat down in the back, propping the heels of her boots against the bumper, and held tight to the side as the pargo rumbled and jumped over the uneven ground, away from the creek and the woods, back to the paved roads and the neat school buildings.

Spencer hated getting sent to the office.

It didn't matter if it was Summerlin Elementary, or Copper Creek Middle School, or the apparent relative safety of the head of house. He was a good student, and even though logically he knew that getting sent to the office didn't necessarily mean he was in trouble, he couldn't shake the little kid belief that he was automatically in trouble.

The lobby of Lincoln House was painfully quiet and almost a little bit too cold, the plugged-in air freshener scent pumping too strongly into the room. No students were left to offer conversation and the TV playing a sitcom rerun was muted.

His shoes made little squeaks on the hardwood floor as he struggled to keep up with Hotch's long strides. The sneakers were a little too small and a little too tight, making it even harder to walk fast.

"See how the light's on?" Hotch said, pointing at a sconce next to the door. "Gideon always has that on if he's free for students to come in and talk to him. He's really nice, you'll see."

He rapped smartly on the door. "Come in," a voice called.

Hotch opened the door and gently ushered Spencer inside. Jason Gideon sat behind the old-fashioned wooden desk; he'd swapped yesterday's burgundy sweater for a navy one today, and half-moon reading glasses balanced on his nose. "Hey, Hotch," he said. He tilted his chin to look down at Hotch from under his lenses. "How can I help you?"

"You wanted to bring Spencer Reid back so you can get the rest of his orientation paperwork done," Hotch said.

Gideon took off his glasses, his expression relaxing into a smile as he noticed Spencer half-hidden behind Hotch. "Oh yes, Mr. Reid," he said. "Take a seat. We'll get this straightened out."

Spencer sat down on the indicated chair, sliding around on the slick leather seat. His feet didn't touch the ground. Hotch took the chair next to him, but he was tall for sixteen and looked almost like an adult in comparison.

Gideon typed something on his keyboard and frowned at the screen. "Sorry, this might take a second," he said. "These damn computers."

Spencer fidgeted. One of his shoes had fallen untied, the dirty laces flopping to the floor, and he wiggled around until he could reach it and tie it back in place. The printer chugged to life behind Gideon's desk, spitting out pages, and he picked up a red file folder.

"All right, I think I've gotten this straightened out," he said, spreading the file open on his desk. "I've got the welcome packet you should have gotten yesterday, so that will have a lot of the information you'll need for this afternoon." He handed over a red keychain with a silver key and a black fob. "You'll need these too."

Hotch took the key from Gideon and handed it to Spencer. "What about his ID?" he said.

"I'll call ahead and see if someone can open up the office," Gideon said. "Most likely you can bring him by after pickups, it shouldn't take long for them to take his photo and print it out." He flipped through the pages in the file and frowned. "That should be just about everything. Although...Hotch, can you step out in the hallway for a moment?"

"Sure," he said, unfolding from the chair. "Do you mind if I talk to you alone when you're done?"

"Of course," Gideon said.

Hotch left, the door clicking shut behind him, and Spencer's stomach twisted. He suddenly regretted eating so much sugar for breakfast; the sweet aftertaste in his mouth turned sour. Gideon put his reading glasses back on and rifled through the papers in the file. He had an old-fashioned green lamp on his desk that cast a faint seasick shadow.

At last Gideon looked up. "There's some gaps in your paperwork," he said.

This was what he was afraid of. "Yes, sir," he said quietly.

"Now, don't worry. Your application was all filled out correctly, your transcripts are all in order, your testing more than qualifies you to be here," Gideon said. "And you were accepted for a full ride scholarship, there's no issues with that."

Some of the tension drained from his small body. He'd worked so hard to get here- researching on the ancient library computer, filling out the application with the correct black ink and trying desperately to print neatly in his childish handwriting, convincing the school secretary to print out his transcript and his records and folding the fat stack of papers into an envelope to be mailed.

But Gideon folded his hands on his desk, fixing Spencer with his serious gaze, and his stomach dropped again. "Your paperwork is missing parental signatures," he said. "And I understand that neither your mother nor your father have responded to the letters and phone calls from the admission department."

"No, sir," he said, his throat dry. This was it. He was going to get shipped back to Las Vegas.

"Now, since I'm your head of house, I can sign your paperwork in loco parentis," Gideon said. "Do you know what that means?"

He nodded. "In place of a parent."

"If you consent to that, I'll be considered your legal guardian for this semester," Gideon said. "It's a loophole we have here in Lincoln House. You're not the first student to have issues with their paperwork. I'll be able to approve things for you in the duration. But we'll need to get in contact before the semester ends. You understand?"

"Yes sir," he said eagerly, relief flooding his veins. "Thank you."

Gideon smiled and scribbled his signature, flipping pages in Spencer's file to find each marked line. "We'll figure it out," he said. "We need to keep someone as brilliant as you around here. Looking at your transcript, you might even be a child prodigy."

"Actually, a child prodigy is under the age of ten," Spencer said. "I'll be eleven in October so I've aged out."

Gideon laughed. "I stand corrected," he said. He handed Spencer the red welcome packet folder. "Welcome to St. Thaddeus, Mr. Reid. Send Hotch in, all right?"

Spencer nodded and slid off the chair, clutching the folder in one hand and his new keys in the other. Hotch was waiting in the hall, fiddling on his phone. "Mr. Gideon's ready for you," he said.

"Thanks," Hotch said. "Everything okay?" Spencer nodded. "Good. Wait out here for me, we'll catch up with Derek and the girls when I'm done."

Spencer sat down on the floor as the office door closed behind Hotch, flipping through the orientation papers he had missed out on the day before. His relief was so palpable that he couldn't stop jiggling his legs with nervous energy, drumming his heels against the hardwood floor.

Of course, you have to get your parents' attention before the end of the semester, a little voice whispered in the back of his brain, but he rolled his shoulders, physically forcing the thought away. He had four months to figure something out. That was plenty of time. And in the meantime, he'd made it. Months of planning and scheming and hiding, all paying off.

The door swung open and Hotch walked out, straightening out the hem of his red tee shirt. "All right, kid, you ready to go?" he said. Spencer scrambled to his feet, nearly dropping the folder and spilling the pages, but Hotch caught them easily and tucked the folder under his arm.

The heat and humidity outside shocked his system as they walked outside. Spencer looped his fingers through his keychain and spun the keys around. "So I talked to Gideon," Hotch began. "It turns out there was a mistake with your scholarship. Did you know it came with a stipend for your flex account?"

The keychain flew off Spencer's finger and landed in a patch of azaleas; he scrambled to pick it up. "Really?" he said.

"Yeah," Hotch said. "It, uh, hadn't processed yet. Twenty-five dollars a week. So once you have your ID, you can use it to buy stuff in the campus store."

Spencer's jaw dropped. "Really?" he said.

"Yeah, and you can buy gift cards at the store too, so you can use those to buy stuff in town too," Hotch said.

Spencer beamed. "I didn't read that anywhere in the scholarship descriptions!" he said. "That's amazing."

"I'm pretty sure it was in the description."

"No, I'd remember," Spencer said. "I have an eidetic memory.”

"Is that the same as a photographic memory?"

"Kind of, but not really," Spencer said. "Photographic memory is limited to just remembering words on a page, typically for a short amount of time. Eidetic memory includes physical images. And memories. Although, realistically, I remember things best if they're spoken to me."

Hotch laughed. "You really are a genius, aren't you?" he said.

"Possibly," Spencer said.

They were heading towards a part of campus that he hadn't seen yet- a soccer field, a baseball diamond, a running track. Hotch caught Spencer's wide-eyed stare. "The football field is that way," he said, pointing down the hill. "We're just going to the gym."

Back home in Vegas, the gym at his middle school was barely regulation size, the painted lines on the floor well-scuffed and the scoreboard half-burnt out. The gym at St. Thaddeus was brightly lit, with blue bleacher seats and banners celebrating basketball and volleyball wins, and the air smelled faintly like a fresh coat of paint. Conversations bounced and echoed off the cavernous walls as hundreds of students milled around.

"Hey, come on, stick with me or you'll get lost," Hotch said. He hesitated. "Want to hold my hand?"

Our hands carry 3,200 bacteria from 150 different species, he wanted to say, his usual response when someone tried to shake his hand. But that was he said to strangers, and Hotch wasn't a stranger, and the crowd was noisy and everyone was so much taller than him, so he tentatively placed his small hand in Hotch's.

That turned out to be the right idea. Hotch was tall- a little over six feet, if he guessed correctly- and taller than most of the other high school kids in the crowd, so Spencer followed in his wake.

Derek, Penelope, and JJ were standing by the far wall, waiting for them. "How'd it go with Gideon?" Derek asked.

"Great," Hotch said. He tugged Spencer forward, placing him in the middle of their group, and let go of his hand. "You guys ready?"

Penelope clapped her hands. "I'm so excited to get my uniform!" she said. "I hope it's cute. I think I'll be cute."

"How does this work?" JJ asked.

"Just follow the line," Derek said. "It all goes in order. But schedules first."

Hotch took Spencer's hand again, keeping him from getting lost in the shuffle as they made their way up to the first table; the bigger kids crowded in front and he couldn't see. "How's your last name spelled?" Hotch asked.


After a moment a paper was placed in his hands and he smiled as he read over his schedule of new classes. If his old teachers had had their way, he'd be starting fifth grade, reading middle-grade chapter books and working on long division, sitting alone in the bathroom to eat lunch.

His grin widened and he held his new schedule tightly, already looking forward to the moment they handed him his new textbooks.

David took the black garment bag, slinging it over his shoulder. "You're not going to check it?" Alex said.

"Nah, I'm sure it's fine," he said. "And if it's not, I still have last year's."

"Yeah, mine don't fit me anymore," James said. He unzipped his bag partially and peered inside. "I tried on last year's pants. Three inches over my ankle. I look like a nerd from a nineties sitcom."

Alex laughed. "I need to see that," she said. "I'm sure you still look fine."

She turned to pick up her uniform, completely missing the dopey grin that spread across James's face as he gazed at her. David elbowed him lightly, smirking, and James jumped. "I just need a new blazer," she said. "My brother decided to wash mine when I got home for the summer and it died a horrible, horrible death. He put it in the dryer."

"Which brother, Scotty or Danny?" James asked.

"Danny," she said, rolling her eyes. "At least he was trying to helpful. Scotty couldn't do laundry if you paid him."

"You have brothers?" Emily asked.

Alex unzipped her garment bag and checked for the pieces- white button up shirts, red plaid skirts, navy blazer with gold buttons, a tie. "Yeah, two," she said. "I'm the youngest and the only girl, and they never let me forget it." She zipped the bag up. "Don't tell me you're an only child like these two."

"Guilty," Emily shrugged. She accepted the black garment bag tagged with her name. " strict are they about the dress code here?"

Alex hesitated, clearly searching for something diplomatic to say. "You're fucked," David said bluntly. Alex nudged him. "You know I'm right, Alexandra."

Emily made a face. "Seriously?" she whined.

David looked her up and down- cobalt blue streaks in her dark hair, black liquid liner in an exaggerated line and black lipstick on her mouth, bracelets jangling on her wrists, artfully ripped jeans that might have cost a fortune and a black tour tee shirt from a band he'd never heard of.

"Yeah, you're fucked," Alex admitted. "We're only allowed minimal makeup and earrings- small ones. Your boots might be okay, but not in that color. And...sorry, but they're not going to like the blue in your hair."

"Shit," Emily said. "That sucks."

"I'll help you dye your hair," Alex offered. "I need to touch mine up anyway." She flipped her ponytail. "The auburn is fake, but I get away with it because it looks natural."

"I like your brown hair," James said.

"Yeah, but it's boring," Alex said.

David shouldered his garment bag and picked up his bag of textbooks. "Hey, tell you what, let's go into town," he said. "We can go pick up hair dye for you two. And I'm in the mood to eat lunch off campus."

"Will we be back in time for extracurricular signups?" James asked.

"Of course," David said. James still looked hesitant. "It'll be my treat."

"In that case, let's go."

It sucked that the massive parking lot was so far away, in front of the main building and flanking the broad circle drive, but they stopped long enough for the girls to drop off their things at Roosevelt House and made the trek out to his car.

David clicked his remote; his black Honda CR-V beeped happily. "All right, a couple rules," he he said as he opened the hatchback and wrestled his stuff inside. "No eating in the car. No shoes on the seats or the dashboard in the car. Driver picks the music in the car."

James tossed his books and uniform bag in the car. "You always drive," he objected.

"Exactly," David said, closing the hatchback. "Come on, let's go."

He turned on the AC full blast and connected the bluetooth to his phone as soon as he got into the car; James took shotgun and the girls picked their seats in the back. He made the twenty minute drive to and from campus and his house most of the time- James typically opted to spend nights on campus in Kennedy House and go home on the weekends, but then again James lived in the boondocks, a solid hour from campus, and his sedan wasn't exactly the most reliable vehicle.

The road to town was peaceful, winding roads through mountains and trees, and he hummed along with his music as he drove. "So what's this town like?" Emily asked, leaning forward and leaning on the back of Alex's seat. "I wasn't really paying attention yesterday."

"Another Rossi rule: seatbelts," he said, looking at her pointedly in his rearview mirror. She sank back and buckled her seatbelt. "Auden's Ridge is nice. It's no thriving metropolis, but there's lots of places to shop and it's easy to walk around. They're used to seeing schoolkids everywhere."

"Especially on Saturdays, they'll bus the boading kids without cars into town so they can shop," Alex said.

"So where are we stopping first?" David asked, making the turn off the winding road onto the broader street towards town. "Target?"

"We're not using box dyes, David."

"Yeah, David, what were you thinking?" Emily said, grinning at Alex, and they laughed.

"Fine, fine, just tell me where to go," he huffed.

Alex directed him to a shopping plaza and he parked in front of a beauty supply store. He and James waited in the air conditioned car, playing on their phones now that they had better signal while the girls ran inside. They returned in short order with a bag each, beaming.

"Holy shit, how much stuff do you guys need to dye your hair?" David said.

"It's a process," Alex said. "Literally."

He pulled out of the parking spot. "So who else wants to go to Sonic?" he asked.

"Oh, god, yes, please," James said.

"What's Sonic?" Emily asked.

Alex twisted around to look at her, the seatbelt twisting with her. "Okay, question," she said. "How much time have you actually spent in America?"

Emily shrugged. "Lots of trips to New York and DC with my mom on business," she said. "And visiting my grandmother in Wisconsin."

"Oh, okay, so that makes sense," James said. "Listen. Sonic is great. Your life will be changed. We go here all the time."

Alex leaned forward and poked James in the elbow. "James, we need to take her to Cracker Barrel," she said.

"Oh, god, yeah."

"Okay, now you guys are speaking a different language," Emily complained, and James laughed.

David parked in an open space at the restaurant and they climbed out, taking over one of the red picnic tables under the overhang. He and James ordered first; Emily stared in confusion at the brightly colored menu.

"Oh, hang on, I left my phone in the car," Alex said. "I'll be right back."

As soon as she was out of hearing distance Emily turned to James. "So how long have you been pining after her?" she asked.

James choked. "I don't...what...uh…"

"Ninth grade," David informed her. "He's been pining after Alexandra Miller for almost four yeras now. And has he asked her out? Not once. Not even to a school dance. Not even prom last year. He went alone."

"You guys really have prom?" Emily said. "I thought that was only in movies."

"What about prom?" Alex asked, catching up to them with her phone in her hand. "God, I don't even want to think about prom yet. Let's get through midterms first." She checked her phone, then dropped it in her skirt pocket. "Have you ordered yet, Emily?"

"No offense, but some of these food items sound extremely fake," she said.

Alex laughed. "Here, I'll help you figure it out," she said.

David sat down at the red table across from James and leaned forward conspiratorially. "You know you need to ask Alex out at some point in this school year," he whispered. "You've been putting off way too long."

James turned red. "I know," he whispered back. "But I've still got time."

David grinned. "Let's make this a little easier," he said. "The homecoming dance, in October. If you can ask Alex out, and she says yes, I'll give you a hundred bucks. If you don't ask her have to wash my car once a week for the rest of the year."

"What if I ask her and she says no?" James asked.

David looked over at Alex, sunlight glinting on her red hair as she said something that made Emily laugh. "I have a funny feeling she won't say no," he said.

Chapter Text

Backbeat, the word was on the street
That the fire in your heart is out
I'm sure you've heard it all before
But you never really had a doubt
I don't believe that anybody
Feels the way I do about you now

--"Wonderwall" by Oasis

Alex tucked her hair behind her ear as she fitted her gold key in the lock of the library door. It made a satisfying click, and after some resistance the tall heavy door swung open. She flicked on the lights and smiled.

The library was in the oldest part of the main building, tucked away in the east wing. She loved it- the tall iron-framed glass windows, the vaulted ceilings, the paneled walls. And the books- shelves and shelves and shelves of books. When she was a little girl growing up in Kansas, her library was in a strip mall next to the post office, with flickering fluorescent lights and the scent of envelope glue. The first time she stepped into the St. Thaddeus library she nearly stopped breathing.

Her steps were quiet on the hardwood floors and she hummed lightly under her breath. She loved having the entire library all to herself, it was one of the best parts of working there. It was her third year as a student librarian- her last year, but she didn't want to think about that.

She stepped behind the broad circulation desk and unlocked the office door. It was dark and the AC was even colder inside, the air slightly musty from a summer closed up. She fumbled in the dark to turn on the lamp over her desk. Her nameplate from the year before was still tacked up but the rest of the desk was bare.

She set her tote bag down, still singing quietly under her breath as she unpacked knickknacks and a mason jar full of brightly colored pens. The larger picture frame with the photo of her parents and her two older brothers she propped up in one corner; the smaller one of her with David and James she hung up on on her memo board.

It had been her mother's idea to send her to St. Thaddeus. Her dad didn't want her to go. More than a few times during her eighth grade year she stayed up to sit on the staircase, leaning against the banister, and listen to them argue.

"I don't know why you want to send her away."

"We're not sending her away, we're giving her a better opportunity."

"Why does she need a better opportunity? Her brothers both went to the high school here, they've turned out just fine."

"Danny and Scotty have wanted to follow in your footsteps since they were babies. They've never wanted to leave this town. But she...she's so smart, she's-"

"So are her brothers!"

"Yes, but...she needs to get out of here. She has bigger dreams than them. Than us. We need to give her a chance."

Her dad had finally asked her about it, one morning at breakfast. He walked into the kitchen, holding the stack of brightly colored brochures her mother had collected for different boarding schools across the country, and set them down beside her cereal bowl.

"So," he had said quietly. "You want to go, Lexy?"

She did. She did want to go. And she chose St. Thaddeus School, because they had half a dozen languages classes, and that's what she wanted. She didn't want the half-hearted Spanish class at the local high school, the only class they offered, where she could learn that gato meant cat and perro meant dog and fill out painfully simple worksheets, when she wanted to actually speak the language, understand it. For so long she'd tried to teach herself languages on her own, checking out outdated books on tape from the local library and draining the batteries on her mother's elderly walkman, trying to speak new languages when she had no one to talk to.

But then, of course, the discussion turned from why should we send her away for school to how can we afford to send her to school. She took care of that. She interrupted another midnight argument, stomping down the stairs in her pajamas, and dropped the letters on the table between them, and they jumped like she'd thrown a hand grenade.

"I got a scholarship," she had informed them. "It's only a partial, but it's at least half. And I'm going to work a job on campus. It won't be a lot, but that way you won't have to worry about giving me spending money."

They'd been surprised, like she thought they would be, and upset, which she hadn't expected. But it made sense, eventually. She was their youngest, their only girl. Her father had been the chief of police in their small town since before she was born, and he'd gotten it into his head that she needed to protected and provided for without any input of her own.

But she'd set her mind to it, and they knew they couldn't convince Alexandra Miller of anything when her mind was made up, and she started ninth grade at St. Thaddeus in the fall. She immediately dyed her long plain brown hair a flame-tinted auburn and asked everyone to call her Alex, and she took three language classes that first year, she was assigned to work as a student librarian.

She'd spent the past three years living in the library, taking careful care of her books, helping frantic students research for essays and projects they'd forgotten about, recommending novels to homesick kids who needed a distraction. This would be her last year as a guardian angel in her library, and it was bittersweet.

She rearranged the knicknacks on her desk and ran her hand over the pens in the jar to shake them up. Her gold nameplate looked a little dull; she brushed a summer's worth of dust away to make it shine again.

"What are you singing?"

She jumped, toppling over the jar of pens. "Oh my god!" she said.

"Sorry, sorry," James said sheepishly. "You forgot your phone, and since Emily said you weren't in your room I figured you'd be here."

"Oh my god," she sighed as he held out her phone. "I've been so distracted. Thanks for bringing it back to me."

He grinned and righted the glass jar. "No problem," he said as he dropped the pens back inside one by one. "You need a hand with anything? Other than the things I destroyed."

"No, I'm good," she said, laughing. She adjusted the larger photo frame. "I probably could have done this tomorrow, but...I don't know. I kind of missed this place."

"Yeah, this is your natural habitat," he said. He sat down on the supervisor's desk and leaned his elbows on his knees. "It's crazy that it's our senior year, huh?"

"Yeah, it is," she said. She pulled herself up to sit on the desk beside him. "One year to go, and then we're off to college." She nudged him lightly. "How's your applications going?"

"Good," he sighed. "I guess. I've got a dream college...and a backup…and a realistic choice." He shrugged. "Technically I could be pre-med anywhere, though."

"Oh, you'll get into a great school," she reassured him. "And then a great medical school, and then you'll be an amazing doctor."

He smiled at her. "And you'll learn all the languages you can possibly find," he said.

"I mean, I can try," she laughed. "That might be impossible, though."

"If anyone could do it, it'd be you," he said.

She almost laughed, but he was so earnest, smiling at her like she was sunshine after a storm. "I can try," she said again instead, turning her phone around in her hands. "And hey, who knows. Maybe we'll end up at the same college."

He cleared his throat, turning towards her, their knees touching. "You know, Alex, I was thinking-"

Her phone vibrated, incredibly loud in the quiet room. "Oh, shit," she said, checking her lockscreen. "David's waiting for us." She hopped down from the desk. "We'd better go, I had no idea how late it was." She flipped off her desk lamp and waited for James to follow her. "Good thing you brought me my phone, huh?"

Penelope beamed as she looked out over the crowded courtyard, lit by streetlamps and strings of twinkle lights as the late summer sun started to set. There were booths as far as the eye could see, decorated with balloons and handmade posterboard signs, all advertising for different clubs and sports teams and activities.

"There's so many options," JJ remarked.

"And I'm going to sign up for as many as possible," Penelope said gleefully, rocking up on her toes. "Come on, let's go!"

"Do I have to be here?" Spencer asked. "Can't I just go back to the dorms?"

"This shouldn't take too long," Hotch said. "We'll go do signups, and then we'll go get ice cream at the student union. Deal?"

Spencer sighed. "Deal, I guess," he said.

"Come on, let's start with sports," Derek said, grabbing Penelope's hand. "Let's go, let's go, let's go!"

"Jesus, Morgan, it's just signups, you're not late for tryouts," she laughed.

"Yeah, but I've got to make a good impression," he said. He slowed down, letting her catch up with him. "See, last year I didn't make varsity. I was stuck playing JV. This year I'm gonna make varsity."

"Of course you will," she said.

He grinned. "I appreciate your confidence, baby girl," he said. "Hotch doesn't think I'll make it."

"Why?" she said, scowling.

Derek glanced back over his shoulder at Hotch and Spencer trailing behind them in the crowd. "Lincoln kids don't usually make it on varsity," he said. "And definitely not as a sophomore."

Penelope linked her arm through his. "Well, I'm positive you'll make it this year," she said.

She marched him up to the football table, but his resolve seemed to waver the closer he got. The man behind the table glanced up as he approached. "Morgan, good to see you," he said. "Signing up?"

"Uh...yeah," Derek said. Penelope frowned. He was acting shy, and that didn't seem right. Granted, she'd only known him two days, but it still didn't seem right.

"He's going to try out for varsity," she announced

The coach laughed. "Yeah, yeah, we'll see," he said. He handed Derek the clipboard. "Go on, sign up for tryouts."

Morgan took it reluctantly and looked around for a pen. Penelope took a purple sharpie out of her pocket and handed it to him. "Really?" he said. She shrugged, and he signed his name anyway.

"We'll see you on the field tomorrow, Morgan," the coach said. "Three-thirty sharp. Earlier if you want to meet the new coaching team."

"Yes, sir," Derek said. He handed the clipboard back. "Thank you."

He walked away fast from the table, blowing out a relieved exhalation. "That guy is scary," Penelope said. "You want to be on a football team with him?"

Derek rolled his shoulders. "Yeah, I don't really have a choice," he said. "Whew. At least it's done." He looked around. "All right...there's Hotch and Spencer, sitting around waiting. Where's JJ?"

Penelope looked around, turning herself in a complete circle. "Oh! There she is!"

JJ was easy to spot in her pink top and her long blonde hair pulled over one shoulder, staring thoutghtfully at a poster. Penelope grabbed Derek's hand to catch up. "Hey! Jayje!" she called.

She didn't turn around, and didn't seem to notice either of them until they were right next to her. "Oh, hey," she said. "What are you two doing?"

"Signing Derek up for football," Penelope said. She tilted her head back to look at the booth. "Oh, you're going to sign up for soccer? I didn't know you played."

JJ looked up at the neon pink poster with black bubble letters and soccer ball stickers. "I don't," she said. "But I do now, I think." She picked up the clipboard and signed her name on the list in neat scratchy cursive. "Or at least...I'll try out and see what happens."

Penelope clapped her hands. "Yes! I've always wanted athletic friends!" she said. "I'll come to all your games."

"What about you, baby girl?" Derek asked. "Are you signing up for sports?"

She dropped her hands on her hips. "Are you kidding?" she said. "I don't run. I wasn't built for it. And way too many sports require running." She scanned the aisle of sports booths- basketball, baseball, field hockey- and caught sight of a couple of senior girls in identical navy tee shirts with gold lettering, their hair tied back with big perfectly tied bows. "Oh! But I have thought about cheerleading."

Derek shook his head. "Nah, you wouldn't like that," he said. "They run laps before every practice."

She wrinkled her nose, making her glasses slide around. "Ugh, never mind," she said. "So what else are you signing up for?"

"Just football," he said with a broad grin. "I gotta show them I'm committed, I don't want any conflicts."

Penelope turned to JJ. "What about you, Jayje? Just soccer?"

She shrugged. "Volleyball too," she said. "Maybe model UN, I don't know."

"Ooh, model UN, I hadn't thought of that!" Penelope said. She tugged her pink sequined backpack off her shoulder and dug around for her new student folder. "No, I missed it! Quick, Derek, do you still have my sharpie?" He handed it over and she circled it in purple marker, the ink smearing a little bit under her palm. "Perfect."

"Hey, guys," Hotch called, tugging Spencer along with him through the crowd. "How's it going?"

"I'm good," Derek said. "I don't think Penelope is, though."

She unfurled the brochure. "I have a list," she said proudly.

JJ laughed. "I was going to look around a little bit more too," she said.

Hotch sighed. "Well, Spencer's getting antsy," he said. "I think the crowd is making him a little stressed.”

”I’m not stressed, I just don’t like crowds. My face is elbow height on most people,” Spencer added.

“Derek, can you take him to the student union? I'll stay with the girls and we'll meet you when you're done. I'm just worried about him."

"Yeah, I can watch the kid," he said. "You guys have fun. Penelope...don't sign up for everything, baby girl. You won't survive the school year."

"I make no promises!" she said cheerfully.

Hotch stuck his hands in his back pockets as Derek walked Spencer out of the crowded courtyard. "All right, so what next?" he said.

"I don't know, Penelope's the one with the list," JJ said.

Penelope held the brochure up and squinted in the fading late afternoon light; the glossy paper was creased white at the foldlines. "I'm not sure," she said. "Let's just wander! I might change my mind on a few things."

"Well, lead the way, then," Hotch said. He glanced around at the sports booths and the corner of his mouth tugged down.

"What about you?" Penelope asked. "You seem like...a basketball player. Did I get it?" She scrunched up her nose. "No, wait. Baseball? Baseball."

Hotch laughed. "Yeah, you got it, actually," he said. "I used to play baseball when I was a kid. I don't have the time for time for it anymore. But let's go ahead and get this taken care of, okay?"

"All right, all right, I can take the hint," she said.

She navigated the courtyard with Hotch and JJ trailing behind her, scrutinizing each booth as she passed by. This was what she'd been waiting for all summer, after she was informed she was getting sent to boarding school.

There hadn't been any discussion or other options. It was decided whether she liked it or not. She had spent a week moping and feeling horribly sorry for herself. There had been too much change in her life over the past two years, and she did not like change.

But things were going to change whether she liked them or not, and slowly she came around to the idea, especially when the shiny new info packets started to arrive, and she started to plan her new school year. Because that was what she did when things felt out of control- she made plans and made the changes her own.

She'd spent the past few months poring over all the new information and planning ahead. The extracurriculars brochure was covered in her sharpie marks, picking out her new future. A whole new world had opened up for her, away from her sleepy California suburb and her grandparents' smothering rules, and she was going to get everything out of it that she could.

"Hey, there's the model UN table," JJ said. "Do you want to go sign up?"

"Yes!" she said. "Absolutely!"

She hadn't thought about joining model UN, it seemed like way too many rules to follow, but if JJ was going to sign up, she would too. Any amount of rules would be worth it if she could spend time with new friends. She hadn't had many of those in California, especially once she had to leave San Francisco and live with her grandparents.

"Have you done model UN before?" Penelope asked as JJ signed her name. "I have no idea how it works."

"I haven't, but my sister did when she was in high school," JJ said, handing her the clipboard.

Penelope signed her name in bright purple. "Oh, did she like it?"

"Uh-huh," JJ said. "Oh, look, there's a debate team. I think you'd be good at that."

"You know me so well already!" Penelope said. "Oh, yeah, I'm going to try this too."

She darted over and reached for the list, but someone stretched around her and picked it up first. "Hey!" she protested.

She turned around to see two upperclassman girls behind her; the one holding the clipboard had dark hair streaked heavily with bright cobalt blue and she was dressed like she was going to a concert in an underground venue rather than a prep school. "Sorry, kid, just a second," she said.

The other girl sighed. "Sorry about Emily, she's been walking in circles trying to pick something and this is the first thing that she finally agreed to do," she said.

"Listen, Ambassador Prentiss said I was required to sign up for one extracurricular activity, and if I have to spend a couple of hours a week in a stupid club, I might as well spend it arguing," Emily said. She held out the clipboard. "Here you go. Need a pen?"

"I brought my own," Penelope said. "Also, I am in love with your hair."

"Thanks," Emily said. "And I like glasses."

"Thank you!" she said. "I have glasses in like, every color. Contacts are the worst, but I'm completely blind without them, like Vema from Scooby Doo blind, so if I have to wear glasses they might as well be cute."

Emily laughed. "Yeah, you've got a point, I guess," she said. "See you at debate club, I guess."

"Yeah!" Penelope said. "I'll see you soon!" She turned to JJ. "I'm making friends everywhere!"

"You do seem have a knack for that," JJ said, smiling, and Penelope beamed.

"Penelope, you can't sign up for everything," Hotch sighed.

She turned herself around in circles. "Okay, okay, just one more," she pleaded.

"That's what you said twenty minutes ago," JJ said.

"No, really, this is the last one, I swear," Penelope said. "It's the last one, right over there. It'll take two seconds."

"I'm going to hold you to that," Hotch called as he trailed behind her. "God, is she alway energetic?"

"As far as I can tell...this is just the tip of the iceberg," JJ said, but she laughed.

He probably could have let them wander on their own- they weren't even his actual responsibility, they didn't live on his floor- but they were only freshmen, and he couldn't leave them on their own. He still remembered his first semester, getting himself hopelessly lost on the vast campus and eating lunch alone because he couldn't find friends. He didn't want other kids to deal with that, not if he could help it.

And besides, he had already taken on Derek and Spencer. He could add two little freshmen girls. But that was enough responsibility, he didn't need to add anybody else.

"There!" Penelope said. "This is the last one, for sure, I promise, cross my heart and hope to die. This is the most important one."

"Theatre club?" JJ said. "You know...I feel like I should have guessed it."

"St. Thaddeus has a great theatre program," Penelope said. "Especially musical theatre. Do you guys want to sign up with me?"

JJ shrugged. "I don't think so," she said. "I'm not much of a...musical theatre person."

"What about you, Hotch?" Penelope asked.

"Me?" he said. "Is there anything about me that screams 'this guy does musical theatre'?"

"Well, I don't like to make assumptions," Penelope said. "You could surprise me."

A girl in a theatre club tee shirt stepped out from behind the table. "Hi, do you guys want to sign up?" she asked. "We're filling up fast, but we still have some slots left."

His stomach unexpectedly backflipped. Penelope launched into a conversation as if she'd known the girl her entire life, but he was sure he couldn't speak even if someone paid him. Maybe he had food poisoning

"Oh, Penelope, that's a pretty name," the girl said, looking at the purple signature. "I'm Haley. Are you a freshman?"

"I am!" Penelope said. "I skipped eighth grade, I'm only thirteen, I was going to be the youngest student in ninth grade here, but I got beat by a ten-year-old. Who knew, right?"

Haley laughed and it sounded like music. He had to be dying. An aneurysm, maybe?

"This is my roommate, JJ," Penelope was saying. "She's a freshman too. And this is Hotch."

Haley turned to him, making direct eye contact, and now he absolutely wished he was could have an aneurysm right that second. "Hotch?" Haley said.

"Hotchner," he blurted out. "It's, uh, my last name, kind of, everybody calls me Hotch, it's, uh….a lot easier…"

Haley didn't seem to notice his word vomit, or at least was too polite to notice. "What's your first name?" she asked.

He hated his first name, hated it with a passion. "Aaron," he said.

"Aaron?" she repeated. "Oh, that's a nice name."

"Thanks, my dad gave it to me," he said, and he immediately wished the ground would open up and swallow him whole.

"That's funny," she laughed, and his heart skipped against his ribcage. What were the symptoms of Lyme disease? Maybe it was Lyme disease. "Aaron, do you want to sign up for theatre club too?"

"Oh, he's not-" Penelope started to say.

"Yes," he said. "Yes, I'd love to sign up."

He signed his name hastily and when she took the ballpoint pen back, her soft fingertips brushed the back of his hand and suddenly his skin felt like it was on fire. Lyme disease. Definitely Lyme disease.

"We'll have our first meeting soon, so just keep checking your student emails," Haley was saying. "And we'll have announcements for the fall show soon, audition dates will be posted soon. I can't wait for you two to join us!"

"Thanks, Haley!" Penelope said. She jabbed Hotch in the ribs and he jumped like he'd been electrocuted.

"Yeah, um...thanks," he said. "Haley."

She smiled again, and this time it felt like the smile was only for him, and he smiled back. But she was distracted quickly by another student coming up to ask her a question, and he didn't realize that he hadn't moved until JJ tugged on his wrist.

"What?" he said, irritated, the spell broken.

"Let's go," she said. "Before Penelope decides to sign up for more activities, or you start drooling."

"I'm...I'm not...I wasn't," he sputtered. "I have Lyme disease."

"Sure you do," JJ said.

He followed her out of the crowd; Penelope was waiting at the top of the steps with what could only be described as a shit eating grin. "Wow, if it isn't Mister 'I Don't Do Musical Theatre'," she said.

"Come on, let's get to the student union before it closes," he said.

Penelope jogged after him. "I thought you didn't have time for extracurriculars," she teased. "You know theatre can be extremely time-consuming, right?"

"If you can sign up for ten clubs, I can sign up for one," he said.

"Eleven. I added ukulele club."

"Jesus, Penelope."

"All right, Emily, say goodbye to the blue hair."

Emily frowned at her reflection in the mirror. "Goodbye, blue," she said. She ran her hands wistfully through her hair. "You don't think there's a way I can hide it?"

"Unfortunately, not a chance," Alex said. Her wet, freshly dyed hair hung over her shoulders to the middle of her back, making wet splotches on her pajama top. "They're pretty strict about hair colors. Jewelry you can hide, they don't always notice nail polish...but an 'unnatural' hair color will get you in major trouble."

Emily twisted a chunk of blue around her fingers. "A hat or something?" she said.

"Those aren't allowed either."

She sighed and flipped her hair back. "Fine," she said. "Go on, I guess."

Alex brushed out her hair and divided into sections, pinning them up with clips. The black hair dye smelled painfully strong even with their dorm room window opened, and Emily scowled as Alex began painting over the electric blue.

"It won't be so bad," Alex said. "The black will still look good."

"I hope so," Emily said. "Thanks for doing this, by the way. I'm terrible at dyeing my own hair. I had to pay a lot of money to get this done in the first place. My mom was so pissed."

Alex laughed. "I've had a lot of practice, I've been dyeing my hair red since I was a freshman," she said. "I went home for Thanksgiving break and my dad about hit the roof. He's gotten used to it though."

"Yeah, my mom never got used to the blue," Emily said. "Before this it was green, and before that it was purple."

"And your school in Italy let you get away with it?"

Emily shrugged. "It was a school for rich Americans to send their spoiled brats, nobody cared about anything," she said. "We ran a little wild." She paused as Alex unclipped another section of her hair. "I guess that's why the ambassador sent me here."

"Is she really an ambassador?" Alex asked.

"Oh, yeah," Emily said. "She's been stationed everywhere. We've moved like...six times."

"What about your dad?"

"Fuck if I know," Emily said. "I've never met him."

Alex paused. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to pry."

Emily half shrugged, trying not to upset Alex's work. "Don't feel bad," she said. "I don't. It's hard to be bothered about somebody you don't know anything about." She shifted her weight on the chair. "So what should I expect for the first day of school tomorrow? I have a feeling it's going to be slightly different from what I'm used to."

"Oh, slightly," Alex said as she went back to covering her hair in the dark dye. "And you'll get lost at least once tomorrow. Everybody does."

"That's going to suck," Emily said grimly. Almost all of the blue was gone out of her hair now, and she hated it.

"Give it a week or two, and you'll know the whole place like the back of your hand," Alex promised. "It won't be so bad. And it really is a good school. Classes are great." She unclipped another section, letting it tumble down, and pinned the clip to the neckline of her shirt. "I've spent two years campaigning for a sign language class and they finally added it as an elective."

"Yeah, I don't think I'm looking forward to any classes, if I'm being honest," Emily said. "My mom picked everything for me. I didn't even know I was getting shipped out here until a month ago."

"Yeah...that sucks," Alex said. "I'd probably feel the same if it was me." She was on the last section now, and Emily watched her frown in concentration as she painted the black dye. "But hopefully it won't be so bad."

"Hopefully," Emily echoed.

Alex set down the brush and eyed Emily critically, then peeled off her gloves. "I think that's good," she said. "I'll set a timer."

Emily played on her phone aimlessly while the dye sat in her hair and Alex packed her messenger bag with brand new school supplies. When the timer went off she got in the shower and washed it out, watching rivulets of black swirl down the drain. It was so stupid, and she could easily fix it back once she was out of here, but at the same it felt like she had to say goodbye to a part of herself.

She walked back to the room and closed the door behind her. "Well," she said. "How do I look?"

Alex looked up from the textbooks she was labeling with her name and a slow smile crept across her face. "Stand a little more under the light," she said. "A little more...there."

"Okay, why?" Emily asked.

"Because you can still see the blue in the right light," Alex said, and Emily grinned at her.

Chapter Text


Even when you're out of work you still have a job to do
Even when you don't know what it is
Your job knows what it is
What it is is it's coming to get you
I'm talking to myself even when I'm saying "you"


And when you wake up you can feel your hair grow
Crawl out of your cave and you can watch your shadow
Creep across the ground until the day is done
All the while the planet circles 'round the sun
Everybody knows how this goes so let's get over it
And let's get this over with

--"Let's Get This Over With" by They Might Be Giants

Hotch didn't sleep the night before the first day of school.

It wasn't from excitement.

He stayed awake, staring at the ceiling, running through disaster scenarios in his head. There were twenty-four boys on his floor that he was responsible for, and what had seemed completely easy and manageable when he applied to be a resident advisor now seemed impossible. What if there was a fire? Or a flood? What if none of the kids on his floor remembered to set their alarms, and they all overslept?

His alarm was set to go off at five; at four-thirty he gave up on trying to sleep.

One of the perks of being an RA was having his own bathroom- the smallest bathroom in the world, but his own. He showered in peace and quiet and even had time to shave the faint stubble spiking on his jaw without dodging seven other teenage boys like he had the past two years. It didn't make him feel better, exactly, but it at least took off the sharpest edge of stress.

He hated to admit it, but he'd missed his school uniform. There was something safe and familiar about it- khaki pants, white button up shirt, the navy and gold striped tie. He had new shoes for this school year too, glossy and still perfect, straight the box.

He could hear the first rumbles of the other kids starting to wake up, chatting and slamming doors, the hallway lights shining under his door. Somebody was playing music, maybe a little bit too loudly, but it was the first day of school and everybody was bound to be full of nervous energy, he'd let it slide just this once.

He slipped out of his room and headed down the hall. From the looks of it, lights were on in every room and multiple showers were running. A little bit more of the tension in his shoulders relaxed. He didn't have to worry. At least not too much.

The door to Derek and Spencer's room was partially open. Hotch peeked inside. "Hey, how's it going?" he asked.

"Great!" Spencer said cheerfully. He was already dressed, but he had opted for the khaki shorts that the underclassmen were allowed to wear. Except-

"Hey, Spencer?" Hotch said. "Your socks don't match. And that's...that's not exactly how you tie a tie."

Spencer looked down at his mismatched socks, one red and one blue, and then up at Hotch. "I never match my socks, it's for good luck," he explained. "And my tie should be right, I looked up a tutorial on YouTube."

Hotch laughed. "Not quite, buddy," he said. "And I get the sock thing, but you don't want to get dresscoded on your first day, do you?"

Spencer sighed. "I guess not," he said.

"C'mere, I'll show you how to tie your tie," Hotch said. He nudged Spencer over to the full length mirror and stood behind him so he could watch him work. "You leave it like that, you'll strangle yourself."

"Actually, the odds of that happening would be pretty low, unless my tie got stuck on something," he said. "A famous dancer in the 1920s died because her scarf got stuck on a car's hubcap. Isadora Duncan. Her neck-"

"Yeah, maybe don't get into that," Hotch said quickly. "There. That make sense how I did that?"

Spencer frowned and leaned closer to the mirror. "It makes sense, but the real question is if I can replicate it," he said. He looked down at his small hands. "I'm kind of a klutz."

"That's okay," Hotch said. "It took me a while to get the hang of it too. But don't worry, you have to do this every morning and after a while you won't even think about it. Now go change your socks."

Derek darted into the room, his shirt untucked and half buttoned. "Oh, god, socks," he said. "Where are mine? I don't remember where I put them."

"No, Morgan, I don't know where you put your socks," Hotch said dryly.

"In your dresser, top row, the drawer on the far right," Spencer said as he leaned closer to the mirror and frowned at Hotch's handiwork

Derek gave him a funny look, but opened the drawer. "Damn, you're right," he said.

"I know," Spencer said.

Hotch checked his watch. "Breakfast starts in fifteen minutes," he said. "You two about ready?"

"Yeah, yeah, give me a second," Derek huffed, hopping around as he tried to pull a sock on.

"Let me know if you need me," Hotch said, and he headed back down the hall to his room.

Nervous energy buzzed in his stomach like a shaken can of soda. There was nothing to be nervous about, really. Everything was going fine, none of the boys on his floor were going to miss class and nothing had caught fire. A major victory, really.

He put on his navy blazer and fastened the gold buttons, then picked up his backpack. Everything's fine, Hotchner, he told himself sternly. You haven't fucked up.

He walked back down the hall, checking doors surreptitiously as he passed by. Nothing seemed amiss. Everyone was up and getting ready. Everything was fine.

Derek and Spencer waited at the top of the stairs; Spencer had switched out his mismatched socks for the dress-code-approved tall gray ones, but Derek was wearing long pants like the upperclassmen. "You two have everything?" Hotch asked. "Schedules, books?"

"Yeah, man, it's not my first rodeo," Derek said, shrugging his new backpack onto his shoulders.

"Well, it's mine," Spencer said. "Although one rodeo still doesn't seem like an adequate number to be really prepared."

"You'll be fine," Hotch assured him. "Do you want my phone number? We shouldn't have phones out, but just in case you need me-"

"I don't have a phone," Spencer said.

"We'll keep an eye out for you," Derek assured him. "Can we go now? I'm starving."

Hotch checked his pockets- phone, keys, wallet. "Yeah, yeah, let's go."

He followed them down the long flights of stairs to the ground floor. Spencer was carrying the old backpack he'd carried on his first night and it looked ready to bust open with the weight of his books. He filed a mental note to ask him about it later. There was no way it was going to last the entire semester.

"There you are!" Penelope said as they made it to the lobby. She and JJ waited by the door, both dressed in their navy blazers and red plaid skirts. "We've been waiting for ages."

"Neither of us could sleep last night," JJ admitted.

"First day nerves?" Hotch said. Both girls nodded. "You'll both be fine, don't worry."

"Easier said than done," Penelope said. "I can't help it, I worry."

"Let's just take it one thing at a time," Hotch said.

Derek shifted his weight. "Yeah, like breakfast," he said. "Can we go?"

"Wait, wait, wait," Hotch said. "Your rooms are locked, you've all got keys and your IDs?" All four of them held up their lanyards. "Okay. Now we can go."

Outside the morning sun was barely beginning to peek through the clouds, turning the tall trees on campus from dark shadows back into green leaves and branches again. The air was faintly cool, already tinged with the promise of the day's heat and humidity. Derek led the way, walking backwards to show off while he chatted brightly with the girls; Penelope's hair was tied in two curled pigtails and decked with little navy bows while JJ's was tied in a long neat plait down her back. Spencer trotted close to Hotch's side, his thumbs tucked in the straps of his battered backpack, watching his surroundings with wide-eyed curiosity. Hotch exhaled slowly.

It's going to be a good year, he told himself. It will be.

Alex was right, and Emily was mad about it- she got lost on campus immediately.

She found her homeroom easily, which was good, but her first period class was on the opposite end of the building, and while she found the right room number, she was on the second floor instead of the third, and had to run up the polished staircase, her backpack swinging perilously on her shoulder.

She slipped into the correct classroom seconds before the bell rang, out of breath, her freshly dyed hair mussed around her face, and dropped into a desk in the back row. This wasn't much of an auspicious start, but then again, she hadn't had high hopes for this school in the first place.

"Bonjour, classe," the teacher said, and Emily frowned, pulling her folded-up schedule out of her blazer pocket.

French I, she thought. What the hell?

The teacher passed out copies of the syllabus and Emily scanned it quickly. "Now, since this is a beginner's class, I will permit English in the classroom," the teacher said. "But as we continue our studies, I will encourage as much French as possible. By next semester you will only be permitted to speak French in class."

This is bullshit, Emily thought.

She'd been speaking French since she was a toddler. When they lived in the Ukraine her mother had hired a French au pair; she spoke in French whenever her mother wasn't around- which, to be honest, was often. And her mom knew she spoke French, there had to have been a mistake when she signed her up for this class. She probably meant to sign her up for a more advanced class, or a different beginner class for a language she hadn't learned. There was no way her mom was this obtuse.

The teacher continued going over the syllabus as Emily dug her French textbook out of the black Kate Spade backpack her mother had bought for her. She flipped through it, frowning. It was all basics- vocabulary, mostly, and a little bit about French culture. There was barely any real conjugation, just a general introduction of passé composé in the last chapter.

She grinned to herself. This was perfect. She didn't need to bother to learn anything new. Everything they would cover she would already know. Hell, she'd been to France so many times she'd lost count. This would be the easiest class in her life.

"Emily Prentiss?"

Her head shot up. "Uh...present," she said.

The teacher smiled patiently. "What French name would you like to be called this year, Mademoiselle Prentiss?" she asked.

Emily blinked. It was way too early in the morning for creativity, and they didn't serve coffee in the school cafeteria. Her eyes fell on a large map of France pinned to the wall. "Lorraine?" she said helplessly.

"Ah, d'accord," the teacher said, making a note in her rollbook. "Now, Mademoiselle Lorraine, introduce yourself in French, s'il vous plait."

"Uh…" she stammered.

"Don't worry, we're all beginners here," the teacher encouraged. "Don't worry about the accent, it'll come in time."

Emily paused. "Je m'appelle...Lorraine?" she said.

"Very nice!" the teacher said. "Nicely done." She paused and tilted her head. "Can you see me after class, please?"

She rolled her eyes, leaning back in her chair and hooking the heels of her Doc Martens on the rail of the desk on front of her. Thirty minutes into class, and the jig was already up. She wasn't sure how the teacher had figured out her ruse in a single phrase, but no doubt she'd get moved into an advanced class, or a different language altogether. She'd have to actually try.

The bell rang and she reluctantly made her way up to the front, swimming upstream against the other students hurrying to their next classes. "You wanted to see me?" she said.

"Yes," the teacher said. "I couldn't help but notice...something is just a little out of place."

Emily sighed. "I'm sorry, I should have said something, it's just that my au pair was French and I-"

"I know you're new, so I won't write you up just yet, but we only allow natural-toned nail polish in the dress code," the teacher said. "Unfortunately, that means your black polish isn't permitted. And it must good shape."

Emily looked down at her hands, the nails chewed short and splotched with chipped glossy black polish. "Oh," she said. "That's what I...oh. Okay."

"D'accord, Mademoiselle Prentiss?"

Emily cleared her throat. "D'accord, Madame," she said. "Uh...merci."

She drawled the words out, flat and overenuniciated, but the teacher smiled. "You're picking up the vocabulary so quickly!" she said, pleased. "I'm looking forward to having you in my class this year. Just make sure the polish is removed before tomorrow."

"Yes, ma'am," Emily said. She shouldered her backpack and speedwalked out of the classroom, biting back a smug smirk. This was going to be the easiest class she'd ever taken.

By the time the belltower chimed for chapel, the sun was up in earnest. James briefly wished he could take off his blazer, soaking up the heat, but he didn't dare. Inside the old chapel was dimly lit and cool, buzzing with quiet conversations as students filed down the narrow aisles.

Each section of old high-backed church pews were marked, and the returning students found their places easily while the new ones milled around, whispering embarrassed questions. It had been the same way as long as he could remember- boys on the left, girls on the right, freshman in the front and rising to the seniors in the back, and each class seated in alphabetical order.

He'd been sitting between Barrett and Bly for the past three years, it wasn't hard to find his spot. Dave was a few rows behind him, frowning at his phone as he tried to text without being notice. James looked across the aisle, scanning for Alex. He didn't see her yet, but there was still time before chapel started.

He leaned back against the hard back of the pew and looked up at the rafters. The chapel was one of the oldest parts of campus, an old Edwardian church renovated over and over again over the past hundred years. The air conditioning was new, the well-worn hardwood floors were at least half a century, and the stained glass windows were original, heavy leaden panes holding up colored glass like melted candies and casting bright patterns across the room.

Alex walked into the chapel, her hair catching rainbows, and she caught his eye and waved. He waved back. The sides of her hair were drawn back from her face with a velvet ribbon and she wore brown laced ankle boots and white knee socks and her arms were laden down with books, and she was beautiful.

He didn't fall in love with her when they first met. They were fourteen, both brand new freshmen. She was working her first shift in the library, supervised by a bored senior who didn't want to be there, and he was stressed about being assigned a critical essay for his English class in the first week of school. He had asked her to help him find a book, which turned into her offering to help with his essay, which ended with her covering his rough draft with red pen notes and him vowing to never speak to her again.

But her edits were right, and she was always in the library which made her hard to avoid, and she was pretty nice once he got to know her. And then she and Dave became friends after she hit over the the head with a book and they both got sent to the headmaster's office, and the three of them had been inseparable ever since.

Chapel service started with the headmaster stepping up to make a welcome speech; James only half-listened. He wasn't as brazen as Dave playing on his forbidden phone, or as sly as Alex hiding a novel in a bible dust jacket, but chapel was an excellent time to close his eyes for a little bit.

No, he couldn't exactly pinpoint when he'd fallen in love with Alex. He just...suddenly got nervous around her, second-guessing everything he said or did around her. She didn't seem to notice. But Dave sure did.

And Dave was right. He needed to ask Alex out at some point before the school year was over. If he waited too long, he might not ever get the chance. He'd probably stay in state for college, commuting to get his pre-med major, while she would probably end up in a big city, maybe overseas. He might never see her again after graduation. He wouldn't see her again until their ten-year-reunion. And by then-

"Hey, Blake. Are you going to sit here all day?"

He opened his eyes. Dave leaned over the back of the pew, smirking at him, and Alex was next to him. "I guess I zoned out," he said.

"You must have been thinking pretty hard, you've got that line between your eyebrows," Alex said. He rubbed his face. "What's got you so worked up? It's only the first day of school."

"Oh, it's nothing," he said. "It''ll all work out eventually."

"Penelope, are you sure that's a good idea?" JJ said warily.

"I did," she said. "Why? What's wrong?"

JJ crossed her arms. "This is gym class," she said. "You might not be making some...practical choices."

"What do you mean?"

JJ steered her over to the mirror and stood beside her. "What do you think?"

Penelope frowned. They were both wearing gray tee shirts with the school logo and navy shorts, but JJ's long hair was pulled up in a ponytail and she wore running shoes. Penelope had left her bows in her hair and her sparkly platform sneakers kept shedding glitter as she moved. "I think I'm okay," she said.

JJ sighed. "We'll see," she said.

Penelope followed her out of the locker room and into the gym. All ninth graders were required to take gym, otherwise she would have found a way to get out of it. Maybe she could fly under the radar.

Her sneakers flashed lights as she walked, reflecting in the polished gym floor, and she made a face. Maybe she should tone it down, just a little. At least for this class.

"Hey, Spencer!" JJ called. "Over here!"

"Oh, lord, he's so small," Penelope sighed. "We need to keep an eye on him. He might get stepped on. "

Spencer jogged over to them, his long hair flopping in his eyes. He was half the size or less of every freshman milling around the gym and his sneakers looked like they were one wrong step from disintegrating around his ankles. "Hi!" he said. "Are you guys stuck in this class too?"

"Unfortunately, yes," Penelope said. "It's going to be a long year."

"It shouldn't be that bad," JJ said.

The teacher blew his whistle. "Okay, kids, huddle up," he said. "Most of your other teachers are gonna start classes today with announcements and looking over the syllabus. I don't believe in a syllabus, so...boys on this side, girls on that side." He blew his whistle again. "Go!"

"I don't get it, what's happening?" Penelope said, looking around wildly. "JJ, what's happening?"

"Oh, no," she said as the coach began placing red balls at the center line. "Dodgeball."

Spencer frowned. "That's archaic," he said. "Boys on one side, girls on the other, don't they realize that the spectrum…" He paused. "Did you say dodgeball?"

JJ caught them both by the shoulders. "It won't be that bad," she said. "Penelope, just stick with me, okay? Spencer...good luck."

"I will come home carrying my shield, or on it," he said glumly.

Penelope blinked. "And that means…"

"I'm not gonna survive out there."

JJ shook them both lightly. "Just try to get out as soon as you can, as easily as you can," she said. "Don't be a hero."

"Spencer, I'll get you out if you can get me out," Penelope said. "As gently as possible." He nodded.

The coach blew the whistle again. "On your marks!" he called. Spencer darted over to the opposite side of the gym, nearly tripping over his shoes. "Get set!"

"Shit, shit, shit, shit…" Penelope mumbled under her breath, her stupid sneakers blinking cheerfully as she backed up. JJ crouched like she was at the starting line of a hundred meter dash.


Penelope shrieked. JJ took off at a dead sprint and grabbed one of the red dodgeballs. "Okay, okay, okay, this is fine, this is fine!" she said. JJ lobbed the ball across the line and smacked a tall dark-haired boy in the chest. "Oh god!"

Across the gym Spencer ducked around a couple of older boys and picked up a dodgeball, cradling it against his chest with both skinny arms. "Penelope!" he called. "I'll get you out!"

She ran towards the front of line. "Yes, please!" she shouted. "Save me from this!" He rolled it towards her and it grazed her ankle, making her glittery sneakers light up again. "Yes! Perfect! I'm out!"

He flashed her a thumbs up, but from behind Penelope a red ball soared overhead and connected squarely with Spencer's face with a solid boink. She winced as he fell backwards and the ball bounced away.

The coach whistled. "No hits to the face!" he hollered. "Little guy, you're out! Sparkle girl, you too, off the court!"

Penelope beat a hasty retreat off the gym floor and scrambled for the bleachers. Spencer followed her, his hands over his face. "Are you okay?" she asked anxiously as he plunked down beside her. "You got thwacked real hard."

"I'm okay," he said, slightly nasal and muffled. "I'm not bleeding." He moved his hands and eyed his palms critically. "No, not bleeding. It could be worse."

"God, gym class is going to be the worst part of this school year, isn't it?" she sighed.

"If this is the worst, it'll be a lot better than if I stayed home," he said. "Wow, JJ is really going for it, isn't she?"

Penelope watched JJ scoop up a red ball and hurl it across the gym without breaking her stride. "Yeah, look at her go," she said. "Wow. Okay, yeah, we're just going to hide behind her during class, aren't we?"

"Absolutely," Spencer said, nodding vigorously.

"Is it possible to have senioritis on the first day of senior year?" Dave asked.

"It shouldn't be possible, but yet, you've achieved it," James said.

Dave grinned. "Listen, the senioritis hit the second I finished my last exam for junior year," he said.

"Of course it did," James sighed, leaning his elbows back on the sunbaked stone wall.

"Colleges don't look at senior year grades, they look at junior year, and you know I'm right," Dave countered. "I'm going to coast through the rest of this year, smooth sailing. And then I'll spend the summer in Italy with eight million of my relatives, and then I'll start college."

"I'll spend my summer working in my dad's hardware store," James said dryly. He leaned back, tilting his face up towards the sun. "Lucky me."

"But hey, I'm sure you're going to get into a great school," Dave said. "Hell, you and Alex are neck and neck for valedictorian. I'm sure you'll get accepted to everywhere. Have you decided your number one choice yet?"

James pushed himself off the wall and straightened up. "Oh, there's the girls," he said. "Jeez, Emily looks pissed."

"No, I think that's just her resting facial expression," Dave mused.

Alex and Emily walked down the steps of the dining hall together, drinks and to-go containers in their hands. "How's it going so far?" James asked.

"Great!" Alex said. "ASL is going to be my favorite class this year, I can already tell."

"I've been dresscoded twice!" Emily said cheerfully. "They're just warnings and not official write-ups, but still."

"Get a third, and that might be a school record," Dave said.

Emily tossed her hair back as they walked down the cobblestone path. "So where are we going?" she asked. "And why aren't we eating inside, in the air conditioning? This blazer is a fucking polyester nightmare."

"You'll get used to it," James said.

"As for where we're going," Dave said. "Every group on campus has their own spot. The three of claimed one of the best spots on campus our freshman year. It's a little bit of a hike, but it's worth it."

"It'd better be," Emily said.

Dave grinned. "Oh, it is," he said as they approached the chain link fence covered in ivy and lamb's ear. James shifted his water bottle under his arm and picked the foliage apart until he reached the latch. It fought back, sticky with humidity and the past few months of disuse, but it swung open with a reluctant groan.

"We found this place during our freshman year," Alex explained. "It hasn't been used in decades."

Emily surveyed the old amphitheater, the sun-faded concrete sinking deep into the ground. Rainwater collected at the bottom in a dark half-dried puddle, and on the inner side of the chain link fence long-forgotten rosebushes bloomed in wild abandon. It was still humid but a little cooler from the shade of tall oak and maple trees. "Do you guys often wander into the weird parts of nature?" she asked.

James shrugged. "When you spend about seventy-five percent of your high school years on campus, then yeah, I guess," he said. He set down his lunch. "We come out here a lot when it's not raining. It's a good place for studying, too."

Emily peeled off her blazer and dropped it on the top concrete step. "Yeah, it's not bad, I guess," she said. "And I guess it's a lot quieter than staying inside."

The amphitheater had been their tradition for the past three years. No one else at St. Thaddeus had found it, and it had stayed their secret. For the first time, Dave felt the first little twinge of nostalgia. He'd spent his entire childhood knowing that someday his parents would drive him through the gates of St. Thaddeus and waiting for it anxiously. Now it seemed wrong to be so ready to leave.

They chatted aimlessly until the belltower rang; James gathered up everyone's trash and Alex picked up Emily's blazer. "You might want to keep an eye on this," she said.

"Ugh," Emily groaned, snatching it back. "I hate this thing. I've worn it for half a day, and I hate it already. When it's my turn to graduate, I'm going to burn it."

Dave laughed. "You wouldn't be the first," he said.

They made their way back out of the amphitheater and he squinted as they left the shade. Alex reached through the thick glossy ivy leaves and pulled the gate latch shut, then moved the vines back in place.

"All right, where's everybody going to next?" James asked.

"Chemistry," Emily said. "Kill me now."

"Ha, I've got senior math," Dave said. "And that's nothing. That's just reviewing shit."

"Oh, god," Alex groaned. "We're in the same class. This is going to-"

A pargo zipped past them on the manicured grass, then pulled up to a stop. The passenger climbed out, keeping a hand on the roof. He wore the white security team shirt, and a gold badge was pinned to the left pocket. "Hey," he said sharply. "Aren't you supposed to be in class?"

The driver twisted around in his seat. "It's fine, MacGregor," Bennett said. "They still have time."

"Yeah, we're just heading back," Dave said.

MacGregor frowned at them, scanning the emblems on their blazers, and relented. "All right," he said. "You kids better hurry."

"Yeah, we will," James said. MacGregor got back in the pargo and Bennett drove down the path; James scowled. "God, they creep me out."

"It's not a big deal," Dave shrugged. "But yeah, we'd better head back soon. Alex and I have a math class to get to."

"Oh, it's going to be a long year," Alex said.

Spencer wrestled with his backpack, trying to untstick the zipper. It popped and gave way at last, and he pulled his history book out and placed it on his desk before shoving the backpack under the seat.

This was his first class so far without one of the girls. He hadn't thought that it would make him nervous- he'd spent his first few years in school doing perfectly fine on his own without friends. But then again, he'd never had to switch classes before, and the campus was huge, and it was reassuring when Penelope or JJ slid into the desk next him.

"Hey. You should move."

Spencer looked up. "Why?" he asked.

Two bigger boys- both at least a foot taller than him, a blond one with a linebacker's build and a brunet one with a narrow ratlike face- leaned over him. "Neal wanted that seat," the brunet said. "So you should move. There's a desk in the back."

Spencer blinked. "Why should I move?" he said. "I was here first."

"You heard Dallas, I was going to sit there," the blond complained. "You should move. It's my first day, you should be nice."

"It's my first day too," Spencer said. "And I don't think you actually want to me to be nice. I think you're trying to play on societal politeness in order to get your own way."

Neal scowled, but the teacher stepped to the front of the classroom. "All right, everybody, take your seats," he said. "You heard the bell ring, that means everyone should be seated."

Neal stomped away, but Dallas slid into the empty desk beside Spencer. Spencer sat very still, his hands clasped on his desk, his eyes trained on the teacher. It was an old habit, honed in the past few years of being the smartest and the smallest of every class. The more the teachers noticed him, the less the bullies were inclined to pick on him.

At least for the time being.

He wasn't new to bullying. Before he started school, it was the neighborhood kids shoving him around on the playground and taking off on their bikes to leave him behind- knowing he didn't have a bike, and no ever taught him how to ride, anyway. And when he started school, the other kindergarteners were content learning ABCs and 123s; he struggled to use the safety scissors and he couldn't color neatly inside the lines, but he sat alone during playtime with novels that he smuggled out of his mother's vast collection.

It didn't help that he was already small for his age, and now he was surrounded by kids four and five years older than him, already well into their growth spurts. His mother kept promising he was going to grow, that someday he'd even be taller than her, but it wasn't much solace now when he was half the size of his classmates and getting better grades than them.

His mother told him once that "the smart kid in class feels like the only kid in class." Well, she didn't tell him that. He'd overheard his parents arguing when they thought he was asleep. His mother wanted him to skip more grades; his father insisted he needed to go back to his correct class for his "emotional maturity" to catch up.

All he wanted for his parents to be happy, and proud of him, but since that wasn't going to happen, he might as well challenge himself.

The history textbook on his desk was brand new, the edges of the pages still sharp and crisp. He'd never used a brand new textbook before. The glossy cover made his stubby half-sharpened pencils seem even more shabby, but that was all right. Maybe now that he had some money in his flex account, he could get himself some new pencils.

The teacher talked them through the syllabus and he tapped his fingers against the heel of his palm as he listened. His feet didn't touch the floor and he swung his legs back and forth.

A hand snaked over and took one of his pencils. He whipped around. "Hey!" he whispered loudly. "That's mine!"

Dallas shrugged. "You should be nice and let me borrow it," he said.

"But I-"

"Mr. Reid?"

His stomach dropped. The teacher was staring at him, and so was the rest of the class. "Everything all right?"

He looked over at Dallas holding one of his last pencils, then shook his head. "Yes," he said in a small voice. Dallas smiled.

The teacher frowned at him before turning back to the syllabus, and he shrank into his seat. He had miscalculated what the bullying situation would be like in private school. A childish part of him had hoped that he wouldn't get bullied at all, that he'd be surrounded by kids as smart as he was who didn't bother picking on little kids.

Dallas wrote notes on the margins of his syllabus with Spencer's pencil. He pressed down too hard and the lead snapped; he dropped the pencil and let it roll off the desk and onto the floor. Spencer didn't dare to move to pick it up.

He focused on the teacher instead, drumming his thumb against the back of his hand. The second the bell rang he leaned down to pick up his pencil, scooped up his textbook and backpack, and darted out of the classroom.

The only good thing about being a fraction of the size of the other kids was that he could disappear. He ran into the crowded hallway, clutching his belongings, and nearly collided with a grownup in a white shirt.

"Hey!" the man said sharply, grabbing him by the shoulder. His gold badge glinted in the hallway lights; his name tag said Officer MacGregor. Spencer gulped. "No running in the halls, Lincoln House."

"I'm sorry, there's these bigger kids-" he stammered.

The man let go and he tripped, trying to catch his balance. "You're lucky I got better things to do right now," he said. "Get to class, Lincoln House."

"Yes, sir," Spencer mumbled. 

He slowed down, weaving around the taller kids, his heart pounding in his throat. His last class of the day was English comp, and when he skidded into the room, slightly out of breath, his belongings piled in his arms, the first thing he saw was Penelope waving from the front row. "Spencer! Come sit with us!" she said brightly.

"We saved a seat for you," JJ said.

And sure enough, the girls had saved a desk between them, and he dropped his things on the floor in relief. "Thanks," he said.

Penelope yawned, stretching her arms above her head. "I am not used to this," she said. "Is it just me, or has this day felt like the longest ever?"

Spencer repacked his backpack. "You spent all summer in a relaxed environment, so your brain is adjusting to a new normalcy," he said. "And besides-"

He paused. Neal and Dallas walked into the classroom, and before he could look away they scowled at him.

The girls didn't catch it. "Oh, did you see this?" JJ said, pulling out a brightly colored flyer from her folder. "There's going to be a back-to-school carnival tonight."

Penelope clapped her hands. "I love that!" she said. "We're going, right? We all have to go!"

"Derek and I have tryouts after school," JJ said. "We can probably go...but I'm going to be so tired."

"Oh, it'll be fun!" Penelope said. "We'll just pump you full of caffeine and sugar and you'll be fine. And you're going to come too, right, Spencer?"

"Yeah," he said absently. Neal and Dallas took seats in the back of the classroom, away from him, and he relaxed. They couldn't do anything to him from that far away. And he wasn't about to let their intimidation tactics get to him. He'd dealt with worse before. This was nothing.

"Are those your only pencils?" JJ asked.

He looked down at his desk and the two chipped yellow pencils, both of them worn halfway down, one with a broken lead. "Yeah," he said. "That's all I need."

JJ unzipped a pocket on her light blue backpack and took out a mechanical pencil with a clean white eraser. "Those are pretty much useless," she said. "You can borrow one of mine if you'd like."

She held out the pencil; he stared at it for a moment before accepting it. "Thank you," he said, and he smiled.

JJ stood for a moment by the locker room door. Shrieked conversations bounced off the slick concrete floor and the dark blue metal lockers. She shouldered her bag and slipped past the older girls to find a quiet corner to change.

She had been quietly dreading this moment since the night before, when she signed her name on the roster for soccer tryouts. Maybe it wasn't too late to back out. There had to be other kids who impulsively signed up for clubs and teams and never showed up. And she was a new kid, a new freshman, and no one would know who she was.

She had never been a sports kid. That had never been her thing. It had always been...well, it didn't matter now.

She pulled an East Alleghany High School soccer team shirt over her head and tugged at the waistband of her Nike shorts. The shirt was too big, but she needed it for good luck. For a moment she contemplated taking off her necklace, but the second she touched the clasp she drew her hand back. No, she needed the necklace for luck too.

Her mom had gotten her new running shoes, bright blue and hot pink, the laces still perfect in the eyelets. They were a little stiff still, she hadn't bothered to break them in, so there was a strong possibility of blisters. That was fine. She'd dealt with worse. This was nothing.

Her first pair of pointe shoes had dug into her heels until she bled through her tights, but she hadn't cared. She had spent the entirety of her first pointe class at the barre, wobbling through her first relevés and echappés, joy pulsing in her chest with every slow, unsteady step. Before long she figured out how to make her pointe shoes her own- bending the shank, placing the elastic and ribbons exactly where she wanted them, stitching the extra fabric into the sides. Three times a week after school she went to class, and soon her pointe shoes became a seamless part of her.

But then, of course, she had stopped dancing, and her pointe shoes and her leotards and her tights were packed away in a cardboard box under her bed in Pennsylvania, gathering dust.

"All right, ladies, I want everybody on the field in five minutes!"

JJ tugged the elastic from the end of her braid and combed her fingers through her long blonde hair. She pulled it up into a ponytail as she walked, her hair falling into complacency quickly after a lifetime of smooth Balanchine buns, and snapped the tie into place.

Outside the gym the afternoon sun was oppressive, making her squint. The grass on the soccer field was cropped short and smelled fresh and sharp. Now that she was on the field it seemed massive, stretching out impossibly far. It reminded her of how her studio could seem so vast when it was her turn to cross the floor in tour jetés and turn combinations, counting out beats in her head and hoping she remembered to spot correctly.

And if she could spend thirty minutes after class practicing piqué turns because she wanted to get them right, she could spend the next hour or two running through the grass and chasing after a black and white ball.

She lined up with the other girls. No one was speaking now; the locker room camaraderie had given way to every man for himself. She held onto her elbow behind her back, her feet in her bright blue and pink sneakers falling into an unconscious fourth position out of long-held habit, and surreptitious took stock of her competition. There were some other freshmen there too, she wasn't the youngest or the smallest, but these girls oozed athleticism, their hair held back with narrow neon elastic bands and their tee shirts advertising the sports camps they'd attended and the teams they'd played for.

"All right, everybody," the coach called. "We're going to spend this afternoon running through some drills. I want to put you through your paces, see what you're all capable of. But first I wanna see all of you take a lap. Everybody line up!"

JJ followed the girls, slipping into the middle of the crowd, and when the coach blew the whistle to start she took off, weaving around taller girls with longer legs. Maybe these girls had more experience, maybe they'd played soccer since their childhood days the way she remembered her first ballet class in her little pink leotard, waving a ribbon stick to the Nutcracker score.

But she had something they didn't, and that was something to prove.

She had never played soccer herself, outside of elementary school gym class, but she'd spent hours sitting on hard silver bleachers, her feet propped up on the seat in front of her, watching games. More often than not it was cold, the Pennsylvania fall turning to chill by the beginning of October, and her mother would wrap her up in fleece blankets and her father would get her hot chocolate from the concession stand and she would scream and cheer with every play, every goal, her eyes trained on the only player that mattered, watching her long blonde ponytail fly behind her like a pennant.

She hadn't gone to a soccer game in a long time. Before she packed up her pointe shoes, they had packed away the cleats, the jerseys, the trophies. There was still a photo, framed, hanging over the piano, an action shot from the last championship game, frozen in time.

The other girls were running ahead of her and she was losing ground, and for a sudden second her blood ran hot. She hated them, she hated all of them, they lost their singularity and blended into one faceless entity, and she hated them.

JJ gritted her teeth and clenched her hands into fists and she ran faster, gaining on them, her new sneakers slipping on the grass. She would think about everything else later. Right now she needed to focus on making this stupid team, even though it was the last place she wanted to be.

The library was still quiet, but she wasn't expecting it to be too busy yet, not until teachers started assigning papers and projects. There were a few students there, though, browsing the shelves and lounging on soft-cushioned armchairs with novels. Alex sat at the circulation desk, sorting through new books and adding them to computer system, humming to herself.

The cart was stacked high with books waiting to be put away; she slid her chair back and took off her blazer, hiding it under the desk. Technically she was supposed to be in full uniform when she was working, but with only a handful of students around it probably didn't matter.

She unbuttoned her sleeve cuffs and rolled them up to her elbows before pushing the cart out from behind the desk. The wheels stuck and sputtered on the rug and she forced it onto the hardwood with a cheerful clatter.

She started with fiction and worked her way through the alphabet, stretching to reach the top shelves that were just ever so slightly out of her way, and then moved on towards nonfiction. The air conditioning raised cold prickles on her arms, but afternoon sunlight shone through the tall windows and cast comfortable shadows over the padded windowseats.

She turned a corner in the stacks and stopped. This wasn't the first time she'd found a student asleep in the library, but this was definitely the smallest one. He was little, maybe nine years old or so, curled up on the windowseat like a kitten, his head tilted against the wall and a book left propped open on his lap. If he hadn't been wearing the St. Thaddeus uniform, she wouldn't have guessed he was a student.

She tugged the cart as quietly as she could, frowning as she shelved books into the 600s section, and then it hit her. It was the same kid Emily had knocked over on orientation night. She'd noticed then that he was small, but in the dark and the hustle of handing him over to the RA at Lincoln House it hadn't quite clicked that he was that young.

The cart snagged the corner of a shelf unit with a skip and a clank, and a couple of precariously balanced books dropped to the floor. She cursed under her breath and bent to pick them back up, but as she dropped them back on the top rack she heard a startled little shriek.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to wake you up," she apologized. "You can go back to sleep."

The little boy sat upright, rubbing his eyes. His book had slipped to the floor. "I can't believe I fell asleep," he mumbled.

Alex laughed. "Don't even worry about it," she said. "You're not the first kid to fall asleep in the library, and you definitely won't be the last."

He yawned. "Probably first one this year though, I'm guessing," he said.

"You are right about that," she said. "It's Spencer, right?"

He scrunched up his face. "Uh-huh," he said, and then he brightened. "Oh! Alex! You helped me the other day!"

"Yeah, that was me," she smiled. She picked up his dropped book and sat next to him on the windowseat. "How's your first day going so far?"

Spencer shrugged. His hair was a little too long for dress code standards, curling at the ends and sticking up in the back from his impromptu nap. "This school is more academically rigorous than my old school, so that's good," he said.

"They're not as tough back in Las Vegas?" she asked.

"That, and I was supposed to be going into the fifth grade," he said dryly. "I skipped a few years."

She laughed. "Yeah, yeah, that's a very good point," she said. She handed him his book back. "The Time Machine, huh? That's a good choice."

"I haven't read it since I was in second grade," he said, running his hand over the cover. "It's not my favorite HG Wells, but I like it."

"I always liked War of the Worlds better," she said. "And besides, the Morlocks gave me nightmares when I was a kid."

"Me too!" he said. "Hopefully I've outgrown that, though."

Alex bit back a grin. He couldn't be older than ten, and he was small for his age- there wasn't much for him to outgrow. Briefly she wondered what would possess his parents to send a kid this little across the country alone, academics aside.

"Well, I'm here pretty much every day after school, so keep me updated if you need a book recommendation," she said. "There's a lot of new stuff coming in."

"Thanks, Alex, I'll-" He paused as his stomach rumbled noisily.

She laughed. "It's been a while since lunch, hasn't it?" she said. He shrugged sheepishly. "C'mere, follow me."

He slid off the windowseat, his book under his arm, and she led him back to the broad circulation desk. "So this is a secret," she warned him. "Because there's no eating in the library. Ever. Absolutely not." She opened up a bottom drawer and picked up two packages of poptarts. "Do you want strawberry, or cinnamon brown sugar?"

Spencer's eyes lit up. "Strawberry!" he said.

She handed it over and opened the brown sugar packet for herself. "I always keeps snacks in here," she said. "So if you're ever in the library and you're hungry, let me know, okay?"

"Thanks!" he said. He sat down on the floor and leaned against the wall, munching happily as he opened his book again. Alex sat down at the desk again, hiding her poptarts on an inner shelf, and picked up the next book to be processed.

Derek skidded to a stop and grabbed his water bottle from the sidelines; sweat rolled down the back of his neck and soaked the back of his shirt. He was used to running outside back home, but that was different. In Chicago he spent the summer running on crowded sidewalks, his shoes striking the pavement in long even strides, dodging a sea of people. And in Chicago it was hot, but here the air was thick and swampy with humidity, making it harder to function. But he could do it.

He dropped the water bottle and picked up his speed again, pushing himself through the drill. This year he wasn't going to be content with the JV team, playing opposite other kids that were like him, too small and skinny to make it with the big boys, and sitting glumly in the bleachers while he watched the varsity team play the homecoming game without him.

Last year, though, he was only five-three. He was a buck twenty soaking wet, his arms and legs skinny and gangly. And he'd been devastated to not make varsity, but deep in his heart, he knew it made sense. He didn't look like a football player, he looked like a little kid dressed up like a quarterback for Halloween, swallowed up in his pads and his helmet and his jersey.

His growth spurt started to kick in before the end of his freshman year, his muscles aching with the first twinges of growing pains. He ran laps around his neighborhood, and he finagled a deal with his old middle school coach to work out in the weight room in exchange for helping out with the summer peewee league. His mother joked that he was going to eat them out of house and home; his sisters complained that there were never any snacks or leftovers anymore, but he couldn't help it, he was constantly hungry.

It wasn't until his mother needed to take his measurements for next year's uniforms that he realized how much he'd grown. Six inches taller, taller than his mother and both of his sisters, and his shoulders were too broad to fit into last year's blazer, and he had muscles now, actual muscles.

His shoes tore through the soft manicured turf as he ran. He could already feel the differences from last year, how being taller and stronger and less clumsy made him play different, play better. His heart felt light in his chest, buoyant with joy.

Football was woven into his earliest childhood memories. Watching games on Sunday nights and falling asleep on the couch during overtime, bundling up to see the Bears play in the winter and squishing in between Desiree and Sarah to stay warm, playing in the peewee league and the elementary school team while his dad shouted encouragement from the sidelines.

The assistant coach blew his whistle, high and piercing. "All right, boys, that's good, that's good," Coach Horner called. "Take a break, get some water!"

Derek jogged back over to his water bottle and took a long swig, the water warm and tepid from sitting in the sun, but he didn't care. "Morgan, you're looking pretty good out there," another sophomore said. "Way better than last year."

"Last year, he was half the size he is now," another kid joked. "Are we sure that's even the same Derek Morgan?"

He grinned. "You guys are just jealous," he said, flexing proudly, and they laughed as he sat down in the soft grass and stretched out his long legs.

At the opposite end of the football field he could see the cheerleading tryouts, pretty girls flipping across the grass and calling out chants. He grinned. The girl-crazy hormones had kicked in last year, before the growth spurt, but he couldn't so much as hold a conversation with a girl, much less found a date to the homecoming dance. He'd ended up dragging Hotch along to keep him company, the two of them sitting on the sidelines and scowling- Derek because he couldn't get a girl to dance with him, Hotch because he had a history paper he wanted to work on instead.

He elbowed the sophomore next to him. "Who do you think is gonna get cheer captain this year?" he asked.

The sophomore next to him snorted. "Are you kidding?" he said. "Unless a professional suddenly sweeps in, you know who's gonna get it."

"And she's single now. She broke up with Maclain over the summer."

Derek sat up. "Are you shitting me?" he said.

"No, man, she dumped him."

Derek grinned. "Maybe one of us has a chance," he said.

"Are you kidding? She's practically got a force field around her."

"No, no, you don't understand," Derek said, leaning back into the grass on his elbows. "You gotta get the best friend on your side first. That's the trick. Get Harper Hillman to like you, and if Harper Hillman approves, that's gonna be your ticket to get to Alexa Lisbon."

The whistle blew again and he pushed himself off the grass, brushing off his shorts. There were more drills to be done, but his energy never flagged. If anything there was a second wind in his lungs now, propelling him forward. He could picture it clearly, starting on the varsity team, hearing his name announced before the game, showing everybody that Derek Morgan was a force to be reckoned with.

It was almost five when the last whistle blew. "Good work out there, boys," the coach called. "We'll have the list up in a day or two. Now get off the field, they've got to set up the carnival out here." Derek picked up his bag and slung the strap over his shoulder. "Morgan, come over here a second."

He jogged over, his heart pounding in his chest. "Hey, Coach Horner," he said, trying to sound casual. "What's up?"

"You're looking pretty good out there, Morgan," he said. "Big improvement from last year."

He grinned. "Thanks," he said. "I worked pretty hard over the summer. And grew a little bit, too."

Coach Horner laughed. "Yeah, you did," he said. "Now, have you gotten to meet the new coach yet? I wanted to introduce you if you hadn't."

"No, sir, not yet," he said.

"This is our new coach, Carl Buford."

Derek held out his hand. "Nice to meet you, Coach," he said.

Carl Buford smiled back at him and shook his hand. "Nice to meet you too, Derek Morgan," he said. "You're pretty impressive out there."

"Thank you," he said, the praise warm in his chest.

"Now, I can't say anything yet, but...I'm hoping to see you out on the field again soon," Coach Buford said with a conspiratorial wink. "Keep an eye out for that varsity roster."

He grinned. "I will!" he said. "I think it's gonna be a good year."

Chapter Text


Oh well, I look at you and say it's the happiest that I've ever been
And I'll say I no longer feel I have to be James Dean
And she'd say, yeah well, I feel pretty a happy too
And I'm always pretty happy when I'm just kicking back with you

And it'll be love, love, love all through our bodies
And love, love, love all through our minds
And it'll be love, love, love all over her face
And love, love, love all over mine

--"Five Years Time," Noah and the Whale

"Guys, do we have to go to this stupid carnival?" Dave complained. "It's going to be lame."

"Stop fussing," James said. "It's going to be fun."

"It was fun when we were freshmen," Dave said, fiddling with his phone and squinting at the screen in the late afternoon sun. "We're seniors now, and this is lame."

"Well, I'm only a junior, and I've never been to a carnival before," Emily said.

"See? There we go, you're doing this for Emily," James said.

Dave rolled his eyes. "Fine, but someone's going to have to buy me ice cream," he said.

"One cone, single scoop," Emily bargained.

"Deal." Dave checked his watch. "How long is it going to take Miller to get ready?"

The doors to Roosevelt House opened and Alex ran down the steps. "I'm sorry, I'm here, I'm here," she said. "Thanks for waiting, I really didn't want to wear my school clothes to this thing."

She had swapped her uniform for a short sleeved white dress with a checked rainbow pattern and her boots for sandals, and her red hair was tied back into a ponytail with a ribbon. "Yeah, don't worry about it," James said, his smile wide. "You look great."

Alex smiled, swinging the strap of her bag onto her shoulder and smacking Dave in the process. "Ow, what do you have in there?" he complained.

"Books," she said. "At least three of them. Just in case."

"In case of what, a library emergency?" Emily said.

"Maybe, I don't know!" she said, grinning. "Let's just go, okay? I'm starving."

Dave trailed behind James and Alex as they headed down the path towards the football field, and Emily slowed her pace to match his. Unlike Alex in her summer dress, Emily had chosen a black tee shirt with the sleeves cut off, and black fishnets poked through the holes in her light wash jeans. "So," she whispered, peering conspiratorially at Dave over the rims of her round sunglasses. "How long has this been going on?"

"This?" he repeated. She gestured broadly at James and Alex. "Ah. The pining. Yeah, that started in ninth grade."

"You're shitting me," she said. "She hasn't figured it out? In three years? And he hasn't made a move?"

He stuck his hands in his back pockets. "Unfortunately, no, on both counts," he said. "I don't know how it's gone this long. But I told him I'd give him a hundred bucks if he asked her to the homecoming dance this fall, and she said yes."

"Ooh, I want in on that," she said. "I'm gonna put my money on prom. If he hasn't asked her out yet and she hasn't put two and two together, there's no way he'll move fast enough to ask her out before October."

"Oh, wow, ballsy," he grinned.

She stuck out her hand. "You want make this an official bet, Rossi?" she said.

"Absolutely," he said, shaking her hand. "It's a bet, Prentiss."

"Guys, are you sure you want me around for this?" Hotch said warily. "Carnivals aren't...exactly my scene."

"Absolutely!" Penelope said. Her pink heart-shaped sunglasses covered her eyes, but she beamed at him broadly. "It wouldn't be the same without you."

That wasn't the answer he was expecting, and he grinned back at her. "Wow, an actual smile," JJ teased. "And your face didn't crack. Good for you."

"Okay, guys, we gotta find out where the food is," Derek said, clapping his hands together. "I am starving to death."

"That's hyperbole," Spencer said. "You had lunch today, you can't starve to death in that time window."

Derek laughed and ruffled his long hair. "You know what I mean," he said. "I...what's the scientific way to say it? Burned a lot of calories and I need to refuel. That better?"

"It's not exact, but it's close enough I guess," Spencer said, grinning impishly at him.

His sneaker caught in the grass as they walked down the hill and he stumbled; Hotch caught him by the back of the shirt, then took him by the hand. "Don't wander off too far, you guys," he said. "Remember, it's still a school night, we still can't stay out too late."

The football field had been transformed, covered with brightly colored snack stands and game booths as far as the eye could see, streamers and string lights waving overhead while the early evening sun was only beginning to sink down. The stadium speakers pumped out music and the air smelled like a summer barbecue.

Derek and the girls ran ahead, Penelope chattering a mile a minute, but Hotch slowed his steps so Spencer could keep up. "How was your first day?" he asked.

"It was fine," he said. "I'll have to actually do my homework here."

"What, you never did homework back home?" Hotch asked.

"I just did it during recess," he said. "I didn't have anything better to do."

Hotch frowned. "So last year you had recess," he said. "What grade were you in last year?"

Spencer rolled his eyes. "Fourth," he said. "I've never been so bored in my life. They tried to teach me how to do long division and the teacher made me read Where the Red Fern Grows for my book report instead of what I wanted to read."

"What did you want to read?"

"Lord of the Flies."

Hotch laughed. "Well, I don't know what I expected," he said. "But yeah, I can see why they didn't let a nine-year-old read that book." Spencer screwed up his mouth and looked away. "What's that face supposed to mean."

Spencer glanced around. "You can't tell anybody," he said.

Hotch tugged him to the side. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"Nothing's wrong, it's just…" Spencer fidgeted, scratching the back of his left leg with the top of his right foot. "I might have lied on my admission forms."

"You lied?"

"My mom lied," he corrected quickly. "I'm not ten. Yet."

Hotch knelt down and took him by the arms. "What do you mean, you're not ten yet?" he said.

Spencer sighed. "They wouldn't let me skip to ninth grade if I was only nine," he said. "Which means I couldn't go here. So I told- my mom told them that my birth year was wrong, and I was really ten, and then they let me in."

"So you're nine?" Hotch said, bewildered.

"I'll be ten in October!" he said. "You can't tell anybody though. They'll send me back home and I can't…" He stopped. "I don't want to leave."

Hotch squeezed his arms. "Okay," he said. "Okay, I won't tell anybody, but...jesus, your mom let you come all the way out here by yourself?"

He nodded. "It's a good school," he said in a small voice. His lower lip dropped in a pout. "Please don't tell on me, Hotch."

Hotch sighed. Spencer's arms were skinny and birdlike in his grip, and he was suddenly, horribly aware of just how young and fragile he was. This was definitely more than he bargained for. He wasn't equipped to be in charge of an actual baby. "I'm not going to tell on you," he said. "But this means you've got to stick with me, okay? The kids in your class are a lot older and bigger than you. I don't want you getting into trouble."

"I can take care of myself," Spencer said. "I just don't them to find out that I'm not old enough. At least until October and then I'll be ten."

Hotch straightened up. "Yeah, I'm sure you can take care of yourself, but it can't hurt to have some backup, right?" he said. "Come on. Let's get something to eat before Derek eats everything."

"And then I'm going to get cotton candy," Spencer said.

"No, you don't need that much sugar."

"God, Emily, have you never had hot dogs before?"

"No!" she said. She slapped the top of the ketchup pump. "I had no idea what I was missing."

Alex laughed as she tossed her paper plate into a nearby trashcan. "So you're making up for lost time by eating four of them in one sitting?" she said.

"Five, and hell yeah I am."

"Do you want to know what's in them?" Dave asked.

"Absolutely not."

James slid his hands into his back pockets. "Where should we go next?" he said. "Besides getting Prentiss away from the hot dogs." She flipped him off cheerfully.

"We could go back to Kennedy House and watch TV in the air conditioning," Dave suggested.

"Oh, there's skeeball!" Alex said. She adjusted her bag across her shoulder. "I don't want to brag, but I'm pretty good at skeeball."

"Is that a challenge?" James said. Dave grinned and offered him a sly thumbs up.

Alex tightened her ponytail. "That's absolutely a challenge," she said. "You're on, Blake. Are you guys going to play too?"

"Sure," Emily said. "I'm always-"

"Uh...Emily, how would you feel about hot dogs if they were on a stick and deep fried in batter?" Dave said.

"Shut up, I need to try those," she said. "Where are they?"

"We're gonna go find some corn dogs," Dave said.

"Oh, and maybe some cotton candy," Emily said. "I definitely need some of that."

"Yeah, we'll get pick up cotton candy for everybody," Dave said. "We'll catch up with you guys in a little bit." He winked as he propelled Emily away, and James felt the back of his neck heat up in nervous embarrassment.

Alex didn't seem to notice as she dropped a quarter in the game's slot. She pressed the button to start and the wooden balls rolled down the chute. "You ready to have your ass handed to you?" she teased.

"Uh-huh," he said. "I, not at all." He fed a quarter to the game next to hers and pushed the button. "I haven't played in a really long time, I have a feeling I'm not going to be that great."

She grinned. "You see that?" she said. She pointed at the display of plush toys above the skeeball game.

"What, the bear?" he said.

"No, that stupid little owl," she said. "That's, what- two hundred tickets? I'm going to win that one."

"I'll just have to win that bear for myself, then," he said.

Alex picked up the first ball and tossed it gently in her hand. "Maybe I'll win the owl and the bear, what about that?" she said.

He smiled. "I'm fine with that," he said.

Alex drew her arm back and hurtled the ball up the ramp. James winced as it bounced off gently and dropped into the lowest-point goal. "That was just a practice one," she said.

"Yeah, sure, take your time," he said. "There's nowhere else I'd rather be right now."

Penelope stopped dead in her tracks and grabbed Derek's arm in a death grip. "What? What's wrong?" he said.

"Look at that!" she said, pointing across the way.

"What? What am I looking at?"

"That cat!" she said, jabbing her fingers towards the football toss game. Garishly colored stuffed animals dangled from the booth, and Derek sighed.

"Baby girl, you can't scare me like that, I thought you were about to be axe murdered or something," he said.

"But it's so cute!" she cooed. "Look at it! I need it."

JJ tossed another handful of popcorn in her mouth. "You have fifteen stuffed animals on your bed already," she objected.

"Sixteen, and I need this one," she said. She dug in the pockets of her short overalls for more quarters. "I'm going to play that game all day if I have to."

Derek winked at her. "Don't worry about it, baby girl," he said. "Give me a quarter. I'll get you that cat."

He strolled over to the booth. A couple of girls in floral sundresses hung around, watching one of the senior boys throw a football through the hanging tire. "Hey, Derek," one of them said, looking up at him from her lashes.

"Hey, Harper," he said. "How were cheer tryouts?"

Harper rolled her eyes. "Stressful for no reason," she said. "It's my third year on the squad, you'd think they'd just let skip tryouts." She smiled, her teeth even and perfect against her pink lipstick. "You-know-who is definitely getting captain again this year too. But whatever, if I'm not captain I can still audition for the school musical." She elbowed the slender blonde girl beside her. "Haley thinks we're doing Big Fish."

"It's just a rumor," Haley laughed. "Hey, I saw you on the field today, Derek. You're really looking good this year."

"Yeah, rumor has it the new coach wants you for varsity," Harper said.

He grinned. "Yeah, you heard that?" he said. "Guess we'll have to wait and see when the roster drops."

Hotch caught up to them. "I was wondering where you guys ran off to," he said. "I thought we were-" He stopped midsentence. "Oh, uh...hi."

"Hi, Aaron," Haley said, smiling up at him.

Derek made a face. No one ever called Hotch by his first name. No one. Not even Gideon.

"Hey, um...Haley," he said. Maybe it was just the setting sun, but it almost looked like a pink flush was creeping up his neck.

"Harper, this is Aaron, he signed up for theatre club," Haley said.

Harper scanned him up and down. "Hm," she said thoughtfully. "Well, god knows we're always desperate for boys." She checked her phone. "Come on, Hay, Alexa's looking for us."

"Oh, okay," Haley said. "Nice to see you again, Aaron. And you too, Penelope! I'll see you at the first club meeting."

Harper linked her arm through Haley's and they walked off through the crowd. "Bye," Hotch said, almost as an afterthought.

"Okay, what was that about, Aaron?" Derek said.

That snapped him out of his reverie. "Don't call me Aaron," he said, irritated.

"Ooh, but you didn't mind when Haley called you that," JJ said.

Penelope's mouth dropped open. "Ooh, does this mean what I think it means?" she said.

The senior boy stepped away from the game; Derek handed his quarter to the bored kid at the booth and picked up the football. "It doesn't mean anything," Hotch said, the pink flush on his neck slowing rising to his cheeks.

"Oh, I think it does," Derek said. "Look at him. He's turning red."

"I'm not!" Hotch protested as he turned red. "I'm just...maybe I'm sick. I don't know. I'm stressed or something. Lyme disease."

"You don't have Lyme disease," JJ scoffed.

"You're not my doctor, little girl!" Hotch said. " your popcorn and stop making that face." JJ shrugged, her eyebrow still raised skeptically, and tossed another handful in her mouth.

Derek adjusted his grip on the football. "All right, Penelope Garcia, you ready for me to win you that cat?" he asked.

"Yes!" she said, clapping her hands. "You can do it! I'm so excited!"

He tossed the football easily through the tire and Penelope shrieked in delight. "Yay, you won a prize," the bored boy running the booth said. "What do you want?"

"That cat!" Penelope said. "That one! That one right there!" The kid handed it over and she immediately cuddled it in her arms, then flung her arms around Derek. "Thank you so much, my handsome angel. He is the new love of my life, and you are my hero."

He grinned. "Any time, baby girl," he said.

JJ frowned. "Hey, Hotch?" she said. "You have Spencer, right?"

"Yeah, of couse, he's-" Hotch looked down. "Shit."

Spencer scanned the crowd. He'd only stopped for a second to tie his shoes, and when he looked up Hotch was gone. And it was really difficult to find someone in the crowd when he was elbow height at best.

He bit his lip. Really, in the grand scheme of things, it wasn't that big of a deal. He could always find his way back to Lincoln House on his own. But he didn't want to think about it logically, he wanted to find his friends.

"So are you just in the habit of getting lost everywhere you go?"

He looked up, startled, to see a familiar face. "I"m not lost, Alex!" he said. "I know exactly where I am. Technically, it's the rest of my group that's lost."

Alex laughed and held out her hand. "Well, technically I guess you're correct," she said. He grabbed her hand and the beginning twinges of you should probably panic died down immediately.

"Who's the munchkin, Miller?" one of her friends asked, a dark haired boy with sharp dark eyes.

"This is Spencer," she said. "Remember? Emily knocked him over the other night."

"I didn't mean to knock him over!" Emily protested.

"I know you didn't," he said. He frowned. "I liked your blue hair better."

"Yeah, you and me both, kiddo," she sighed.

Alex drew Spencer a little closer to her side. "Spencer, these are my friends, David and James," she said.

"Hi," he said tentatively.

"Do you know where your group was headed?" Alex asked.

He shrugged. "I'm not sure," he said. "I just stopped to tie my shoe and when I looked up Hotch was gone."

"Well, stick with us, then," James said. "We'll find them." He held out a bag of pink cotton candy. "Do you want this? I'm not going to finish it."

Spencer brightened. "Yes, please!" he said.

He let go of Alex's hand and took the bag, tearing off a soft handful and popping it into his mouth as they started walking. The sugar melted instantly and he smiled. The older kids chatted above his head. The sun was sinking behind the horizon a little more, the sky shifting from deep pink to a dark purple, and the humid air was a tiny bit cooler.

"Spencer! Where the hell did you run off to?"

He spotted Hotch crossing through the crowd, Derek and the girls following close behind him. "Hotch!" he called, and immediately shrank back. Hotch didn't look very happy. He wadded up the empty cotton candy bag and stuck it in his pocket.

"Where did you wander off to?" he asked as he caught up.

"I didn't," he objected. "I stopped to tie my shoe and you didn't see me."

"See? I told you it wasn't his fault," Derek said. "You okay, pretty boy?"

"Yeah, I'm fine, I ran into Alex again," Spencer said. He brightened. "Alex, these are my friends!"

"I met some of you briefly the other night, I think," Alex said.

They ran through introductions, and Spencer didn't miss the way that David and Hotch frowned at each other. He wasn't entirely sure why, though.

The others, though, seemed to hit it off. "I like your cat," Alex said.

"Thank you!" Penelope said, cradling her new toy like a mother holding a newborn baby. "Derek won him for me. I haven't decided on a name yet."

"Aaron," JJ suggested.

"Absolutely not," Hotch said flatly. He tugged Spencer's shoulder. "Thanks for finding him. Hopefully he won't wander off so much."

"I didn't wander off!" he protested.

Suddenly Penelope grabbed Derek by the arm. "Oh my god!" she shrieked.

He winced. "Baby girl, you gotta stop doing that, you're a lot stronger than you realize…"

"There's a bounce house!" she said. "We have to go! Right now!"

Emily whipped her head around. "Holy shit, I'm in," she said. "Who else is coming with us?"

"I'll go," JJ said.

"I don't think Penelope is giving me the option to say no," Derek said dryly. "What about you, kid?"

Spencer hesitated. "It's probably just a germ factory in there," he said.

"Yes, but a fun germ factory," Emily said. "Come on, everybody, let's go."

Spencer found himself propelled towards the massive bouncy castle, trepidation building in his chest. He definitely wasn't sure about this. "You know, germs and viruses can survive on hard surfaces for weeks," he said.

No one heard him. "Penelope, I'll hold Aaron," Alex offered.

Hotch frowned. "Why would you...oh, you meant the cat," he said. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Please don't name the cat after me."

"Too late!" Penelope said, handing the toy to Alex as she kicked off her shoes. "His name is Aaron now. Last name to be decided. Now come on, boy wonder, let's go."

Spencer took off his well-worn sneakers and placed them next to Emily's Doc Martens. There was a hole in the heel of his right sock, the striped one. "So if this thing hasn't been disinfected recently-"

"Forget the science, Jimmy Neutron, let's go!" Emily said.

James glanced from Hotch to Dave. The four oldest kids sat in the grass at a safe distance from the bounce house in awkward silence. Alex held Penelope's stuffed cat on her lap like a neon-colored toddler and balanced a book on her knee. "So you guys are all in Lincoln House?" Dave said.

"Yeah," Hotch said tersely. "I'm the seventh floor RA."

"Are you a senior?" James asked. "I know I've seen you around, but I don't think we've been in any of the same classes."

"Junior," Hotch said. "Derek's a sophomore, the girls and Spencer are freshmen."

"Spencer's...a little young, right?" James said. "It's not just me?"

"Oh, no, he's ten," Hotch said.

"Ten?" James repeated. "God, he's a baby."

"He's brilliant, though," Alex said, glancing up from her book. "He came to the library today, we had a nice little chat. He's a sweet kid, and so smart."

James could see Hotch's tense expression ease a little. "Yeah, he is," he said. "He and Derek are on my floor, so I guess I feel pretty responsible for both of them."

"Where did the girls come in?" Alex asked.

Hotch shrugged. "Honestly, no idea how that happened. They just sort of adopted me," he said. He pushed himself off the ground. "I'll be right back."

As soon as he was out of earshot Alex smacked Dave's arm. "Stop scowling," she said.

"I'm not scowling!" he protested.

"No, she's right, you are," James said.

Dave scratched the back of his neck. "Look, I'm sorry, but the Lincoln House kids just kind of set me on edge, okay?" he said. "They all got sent there for a reason, and the reasons make me nervous. Maybe Hotch is supposed to be in juvie or something."

James glanced over the bounce house as he tugged absently at the grass; JJ was turning backflips while Derek, Emily, and Penelope counted and cheered her on. "You can't be serious," he said. "They're nice kids, Dave."

Dave threw his hands in the air. "Maybe I'm wrong!" he said. "I don't know."

"You have got to get your head out of your ass, Rossi," Alex said, turning back to her book.

Spencer tumbled out of the bounce house and scrambled to his feet, grabbing up his shoes. "Hey, you okay?" James asked.

"It's gross in there," Spencer said, dropping down beside him. "It's fun, I guess, but every time I started to enjoy myself I remembered that it's disgusting."

Alex set her book aside and dug around in her bag. "Hold out your hands," she said, and when he obeyed she squirted a healthy amount of hand sanitizer over his palms. "Does that help?"

"Yes, thank you," he said gratefully, rubbing it over his hands. "What are you reading?"

Alex held up her textbook. "Trying to get a head start on my ASL class," she said.

"Oh, is that what you're taking for your language credit?" Spencer asked. "I haven't decided what I want to take yet."

"This is her sixth language class," James said. "Which ones have you taken, Al?"

"French, Spanish, Latin, German, and Russian," she said. "ASL is new this year, though. Plus I've learned a couple on my own time."

"Yeah, she and Dave both speak Italian and leave me out," James said, elbowing Alex playfully. "Emily's fluent too, but I'm hopelessly bad at languages. It took everything in me to slog through my language requirements."

Spencer brightened. "I want to learn!" he said. "Can you guys teach me? I can read in other languages if I have a dictionary, but speaking another language is completely different."

"I think we can manage that," Alex said. She glanced slyly at Dave. "What do you think, David? We can teach Spencer to speak Italian, and then four of can talk about James in front of him."

"Hey!" James protested.

Dave smiled. "Yeah, we can do that," he said. "Sorry, James."

James tossed a few loose blades of grass at him. "You're not sorry, don't lie."

"Yeah, you're right."

Hotch crossed over to them. "Here," he said, handing Spencer a bag of blue cotton candy. "Just the one, though, okay?"

"Thanks!" Spencer said, eagerly tearing into the bag. "Blue's my favorite flavor. There actually is a blue raspberry, the whitebark raspberry, but this isn't the correct shade. Really, it should be almost black, but that doesn't look quite as appetizing."

"No, I wouldn't imagine so," James laughed.

"So I think we should go on the slides next," Penelope said, half out of breath as they stumbled out of the bounce house like drunk frat boys leaving a wedding reception. "They look like fun."

Emily caught her balance against the squishy side of the bounce house. "You guys have fun," she called over the roar of the fan. She sighed as she jammed her feet back into her Docs. "I'm getting too old for this."

She slid her sunglasses back on and picked up her bag. It was probably a bad idea, since it was so busy, and it was absolutely against school rules, but...she hadn't been able to get away for a while now, and this was her best chance.

She snuck off to the edges of the football field and ducked under the bleachers. It was quiet and cool, almost dark, and she fumbled around in her bag for her pack of cigarettes and her favorite lighter. Even just the sharp scent was reassuring, and she sighed audibly in pleased relief.

It was so much easier to get away with her habit back home. Then again, she spent her afternoons after school roaming around with her friends, doing whatever they wanted, and if she stayed out late all she got was a quick scolding from her mother, too busy and distracted to do anything more than that.

She dug around in her back pocket with her free hand for her phone, opening the email app. The signal wasn't great anywhere on campus, and definitely not on the football field, but it was worth a shot. She tapped the cigarette, shaking off the ash, and waited for it load.

Nothing. Still no reply.

"You're not supposed to smoke on campus."

Emily jumped. "Holy shit!" she said. "How long have you been standing there?"

JJ crossed her arms. Somehow she managed to cut an imposing figure for someone so small and slight. "Long enough," she said. "You know you're not allowed to smoke on campus. And you're not eighteen, are you? How'd you buy cigarettes?"

"Fake ID," Emily admitted. She stopped and scowled. "I don't have to explain myself to you. You can't stop me."

"I can tell Hotch," JJ suggested.

She paused. "Okay, maybe you can stop me," she said. "All right. What do you want?"

JJ frowned, wrinkling her nose. "What do you mean?" she asked.

"I assume this is an extortion attempt," Emily said. "Not my first. So what do you want in exchange for your silence?"

"Well, I went looking for you because Penelope saw a face-painting booth from the top of the slide and booked it over there," JJ said. A slow smile crept across her face. "Maybe if you got your face painted…"

"Oh, jesus, really?" Emily said. She sighed and ground out the cigarette under her shoe. "Okay, okay, fine. Don't tell Hotchner. He would tattle on me in a heartbeat."

"He's not that scary," JJ said as Emily followed her out from under the bleachers. "But yeah, he'd tell on you."

"Don't tell me he's not scary, he looks like his face might crack if he smiles," Emily said.

It was dark now, strings of lights and round paper lanterns casting a warm glow overhead, but the air still smelled like fresh popcorn and warm sugar. "Hey, I found her!" JJ called.

Penelope was already getting her face painted by a senior art student, lit by a propped up worklamp. "Oh good!" she said. "Emily what design do you want?"

"Oh, I don't think…" her voice trailed off as she looked down at JJ, who raised an eyebrow and shot her a knowing look. "Just pick something for me."

"Ooh!" Penelope exclaimed, nearly knocking the art student's elbow. "Sorry, sorry. I just got a little excited. I'll pick something good! Don't worry!"

Emily looked at the rainbow tiger stripes on Penelope's cheeks. "Oh, I'm worried," she said.

"You've almost got it," Dave said. "A little more of a roll on the R."

"Grazie," Spencer said again, frowning in concentration as he tried to copy him exactly.

"Much better," Alex said.

Spencer beamed. "It's so interesting to hear Italian spoken as opposed to reading it," he said. "Last year I read La Divina Commedia in the original Italian, and I'm realizing that the pronunciations I was mentally using were completely wrong. I think I was reading it more like French. I don't speak French either, at least not yet, but I've read a couple of books in French. Victor Hugo-"

"All right, I think you've had enough sugar for today," Dave laughed. He and Alex had given Spencer what was left of their bags of cotton candy, and that might have been a mistake. "We might need to put you back in that bounce house to get some of your extra energy out."

"Oh, I'm fine!" Spencer chirped. "Teach me more things!" He tripped over his shoelaces, stumbling a little and righting himself quickly. "I want to learn sign language too, can I learn that?"

"Of course," Alex said.

Dave bit back a frown. No wonder Spencer kept tripping over his shoes- his off-brand sneakers were on the brink of falling apart, the colors faded, and the broken laces knotted together in several spots to keep them in one piece. He filed it away mentally to ask the kid's RA about it later.

It was dark now and some of the booths were beginning to close, but bright music still played on the field's speakers, and they were waiting for the others at the face painting booth. "It's a little dark to see," Alex said. "If you sit up here you can see me better. Can I pick you up?"

He nodded and she hoisted him up easily, setting him down to sit on the closed booth next to the face painting stand. "All right, so I'm going to teach you what I learned today," she said. "Honestly, this will be good practice for me too. So, this is thank you."

Dave smiled as he watched Spencer copy Alex. He was a nice little kid, really. Smart and articulate. And he had to admit that Spencer's friends seemed like nice kids too, even the RA with the serious smile. Maybe Alex and James were right. Maybe the Lincoln House kids weren't all bad.

He paused. "Hey, where did James go?" he asked.

Alex looked around. "No idea," she said. "I didn't even see him leave."

"Maybe he started the drive home," Dave said. "It's getting late."

She frowned, disappointed. "No, he would have said goodbye," she said. "He always says goodbye. He's still around somewhere, I'm sure of it."

Dave rummaged around in his pocket for his phone and texted James. He'd been hoping that the carnival would be a good moment for James to finally get some alone time with Alex. Apparently that wasn't the case.

Penelope bounded over to them, dragging Emily behind her. "What do you think?" she asked.

Dave burst out laughing. "Prentiss, you look amazing," he said.

Her face was painted in an elaborate blue butterfly design. "I have glitter on me, don't I?" she said.

"So much glitter," JJ said. She had a floral pattern painted along her temples to her jawline, and Penelope had a full scale rainbow tiger face. "It suits you, I think."

"Spencer, you want to get your face painted?" Derek asked. Penelope had talked him into a blue and red Spiderman design across his cheeks. "C'mon, it'll be cool."

"I think they're closing, anyway," Hotch said.

Alex tilted her head. "Is that a Batman symbol in the middle of your forehead?" she asked.

He sighed. "It was the smallest design option they had, and Penelope wouldn't let me out of it," he said as he checked his watch. "Yeah, it's almost time to head out."

"Just a second, just a second," Penelope said. "What's your favorite color, boy genius?"

"Purple," he said warily. "Why?"

Penelope darted over to the stand, spoke quickly to the art student in charge, and ran back with a paint brush and a pot of purple paint. "Hold still," she commanded.

"It's cold!" Spencer objected, and she quickly painted a big purple heart on his cheek.

"There!" she said. "Perfect."

Spencer touched the paint on his cheek gingerly. "Thank you?" he said.

"Oh, there's James!" Alex said. "Where'd you go, Blake? We were wondering where you went."

James held both hands behind his back. "Well, I kind of wanted to play a couple more games before they all closed up," he said. "I might've accidentally won something."

"Really?" she said. "What did you win?"

He pulled a plush toy owl from behind his back, its embroidered eyes just ever so slightly crooked. "Here it is," he said.

"Oh, that stupid owl!" Alex exclaimed. She hesitated. "Wait. Are you giving him to me?"

"You've seen my room at home, where am I going to put him?" James said. He held it out, almost shyly. "You, want him?"

"Yes!" she said. "Oh, he's so cute." She held it out to Penelope. "Quick, he needs a name. What does he look like to you?"

"Something classic, yet quirky," Penelope said. "Archimedes."

"Archimdedes it is," Alex said. She tucked the owl in her bag so his round little head peeked out. "Thank you, James. That's so sweet."

Dave tried to catch his eye, desperately trying to telegraph his thoughts to him. But James just smiled, dopey and nervous. "Any time," he said, and his voice cracked a little. He cleared his throat. "Glad I could, uh, help." Dave closed his eyes and shook his head. James was hopeless. And this point, he was definitely going to lose the bet to Emily.

Spencer yawned abruptly, covering his mouth with the back of his hand and smearing the purple heart on his cheek a little. "You okay?" Hotch asked.

Spencer frowned. "I'm just really tired all of a sudden," he said. "And my stomach hurts."

"Well, I did let you have that big bag of cotton candy," Hotch said. "I'm not surprised."

"Three," Spencer said miserably.

"How'd you get three bags of cotton candy?" JJ asked.

He shrugged helplessly. "People kept handing it to me!" he said. "And it's so good! But...yeah, my stomach hurts. And I'm tired."

"Ah, the sugar high has worn off," Dave said sagely.

"You want a ride back to the dorm?" Hotch asked. Spencer nodded; Hotch situated himself by the booth so Spencer could clasp his arms around his neck and lifted him onto his back. "All right, Reid. You've got to go to bed."

"This has been fun, you guys," Emily said. "I guess we'll see you around."

"Do you want to eat breakfast with us tomorrow?" Penelope asked. "We've claimed one of the good tables and there's plenty of room."

"Sure," James said. "Sounds great. Right, Dave?"

"Right," he said. "You guys seem like a lot of fun."

Hotch smiled at him, and without the solemnity of his usual expression he looked like a completely different person. "We'll see you guys tomorrow, then," he said, shifting a half-asleep Spencer on his back.

Chapter Text

take this burden away from me
and bury it before it buries me

many are the days I've wanted to cease
lay myself down and find some relief
heavy is the head that gets no sleep
we carry our lives around in our memories

-"Cold is the Night" by the Oh Hellos

Derek couldn't sleep. He stayed awake staring at the ceiling, listening to Spencer turning pages in his book in the dark, his mind running wild. He knew he was going to see his name on the varsity list in the morning, he just knew it, and he indulged in daydreams, picturing himself getting announced at the homecoming game, scoring winning touchdowns, winning awards, signing onto a college team at the end of his senior year. He stayed up all night, thinking.

At least he thought he stayed up all night.

His alarm went off, startling him awake, and he slapped it off. Late summer morning sunlight barely peeked out through the window, turning the edges of the horizon blue. Spencer raised his head from the sound of the alarm; he still held a book in his hand and more books were stacked neatly beside him.

"Is it time to get up already?" Spencer asked.

Derek rolled out of bed, tossing his sheets and blankets aside in lieu of actually making it neatly like he was supposed to. "Yeah, it is," he said. "Man, I didn't sleep at all last night."

"No, you did," Spencer said. He set his book aside and crawled out of bed, pulling his single thin blanket back into place. "You fell asleep around two."

"Really?" Derek said, wrinkling his nose. "How do you know?"

"You snore."

Derek picked up his uniform pieces, then paused. "Did you sleep at all last night?" he asked. Spencer just shrugged.

For once in his life, Derek was ready before anybody else, racing down the seven flights of stairs to wait for the others, his backpack on his shoulders. JJ made it down next, her blonde hair braided again and her mouth tugged down in a frown.

"Hey, Jayje!" he said. "You excited to see the rosters?"

"I guess," she said, hooking her thumbs in her backpack straps.

"You don't sound that excited," he said. "Come on, aren't you at least a little curious to see if you made it?"

"Curious, yeah, I guess," she said. "Not as excited."

Before he could press her further, Hotch and Spencer joined them. "You're early for once," Hotch said, checking his watch.

"I'm motivated," Derek said. "Rosters should be up before homeroom."

"Maybe they stuck you on second string JV again," Hotch said.

Derek rolled his eyes. "Come on, dude, have a little faith in me," he said. "I have a really good feeling about this."

Penelope clattered down the stairs. "I'm here! I'm sorry! I'm here!" she called. "I'm sorry, I completely lost track of time."

"You're fine," Hotch said. "But I have a feeling you and Derek are going to take turns running late all year."

"I'm usually on time for things," Penelope protested.

"No, you're not," JJ said.

"Well, we've got everybody here, so let's go!" Derek said.

He jogged out of the lobby without waiting for the others. They could catch up, it would be fine. Maybe they already had the lists up. The sooner he got there, the sooner he would know for sure.

He jogged up the steps, pushed open the double doors, and ran to the bulletin board in the lobby. "Nothing," he said aloud.

"God, Derek, can you slow down a little?" Hotch called. "It's too early for this."

He shoved the doors open. "They still don't have the lists up," he complained.


He winced. "Sorry, Emily," he said. "I didn't see you there."

"Jesus, Morgan," Emily said, rubbing her forehead. "Hotch is right, it is too early for this."

Alex peered at the slight red mark. "You'll live," she said. Emily rolled her eyes. "Hey, is the offer still good to eat breakfast with you guys?"

"Yes! Absolutely!" Penelope said. She paused and looked around. "Right?"

"Sure," Hotch said. "Just you two?"

"Dave and James live off campus and commute," Alex explained. "Sometimes they join us for breakfast, and sometimes they slide into homeroom at the last possible minute."

Derek led them inside; it was early enough that it wasn't too busy. He let Penelope and JJ slide in before him and he grabbed a plate and a tray. "Did you guys try out for any sports?" he asked.

"Absolutely not," Emily said. "That requires entirely too much effort." She dropped her plastic tray on the rail. "The ambassador told me I had to do one extracurricular, and it was not going to be anything that involves running around."

"Yeah, me neither," Alex said.. "I did concert band for a while, but let's just say that I'm better at appreciating music than playing it. And the library keeps me busy." She looked down at Spencer, struggling for the stack of plates. "Do you need a hand?"

"Yes, please," he sighed reluctantly. "I'm too short to reach."

Alex picked up a second plate and added it to her tray. "Just tell me what you want, okay?" she said.

"Did James or Dave try out for sports?" Derek asked.

Alex laughed. "God, I'd love to see Dave try out for something," she said. "James did track and field for a while, but he's hoping to get an internship at the hospital in town this year, so he's not doing much in the way of extracurriculars." She looked down at Spencer. "Waffle?"

"Yes, please."

Derek twisted around and nearly dropped his tray. "They're posting it," he said. "They're posting it!"

"Hey!" JJ protested as he grabbed her arm.

"Let's go, Jareau!" he said, dragging her along behind him. "We gotta see!"

His heart pounded in his chest. If his name wasn't on the varsity team...what if he didn't even make JV? "My name better be up there," he said.

"You made it!" JJ said, jabbing her finger at the board. "See? You made it!"

He followed her gaze, and sure enough- Derek Morgan, 10th, Lincoln House, printed in bold under the varsity list. "Holy shit!" he said. "I did it! Holy shit!" He scanned the board for the soccer teams. "And you did too!"

"Really?" she said.

"Yeah, look!" he said. He took her by the shoulders and gave her a playful little shake. "I told you I had a good feeling, JJ! C'mon, let's go tell them!"

The others were sitting at their normal table, Alex and Emily fitting in easily. "I'm on varsity!" he said, pumping his fist in the air. "And JJ made the soccer team!"

Penelope clapped her hands. "I knew it!" she said. "See? I told you both there was nothing to worry about."

"Thank god you didn't get stuck on JV again, I wouldn't be able to put up with your moping," Hotch grinned. "Congratulations, Morgan. And you too, JJ."

"Practice starts tomorrow!" he said as he plunked down in his seat.

Emily stabbed her fork in her scrambled eggs. "You're so excited, it's adorable," she said. "If only I could feel that kind of youthful joy again."

"You're only sixteen," Hotch said dryly.

"Yeah, same age as you," she said. She looked him up and down. "I think you're in the same boat as me. Ah, where has your youthful joy flown, my dove?"

Hotch paused, a spoonful of oatmeal halfway to his mouth. "I have plenty of youthful joy," he said.

"No, I'm pretty sure you were born a full-fledged adult," she said. "You were born with a business card in your hand, knowing what a fixed rate mortgage is."

Alex laughed. "Okay, come on, Emily, stop it," she said. "I'm sure you can find plenty of joy in debate club."

She sighed. "I regret it already, Alex," she said. "I regret it."

"I'm in debate club too!" Penelope piped up. "And Hotch is in drama club with me too!"

Emily turned towards Hotch, a smirk slowly spreading across her face. "Hotch is what now?" she said.

"I'm in eleven clubs!" Penelope said, not realizing what was happening. "Debate, theatre, ukulele, crafting, sculpture-"

"When are you going to have time to sleep?" Alex said. She glanced over at Spencer beside her. "Speaking of which. Did he not get any sleep last night?"

"I don't think so," Derek said.

"Probably all the sugar," Hotch said. "A kid his size shouldn't eat three bags of cotton candy."

Spencer had his head down on his folded arms. Alex rubbed his back lightly and he bolted upright. "What happened?" he said. "Did I miss something?"

"You dozed off," Alex said. "And JJ and Derek made their sports things."

Spencer sat up and rubbed his eyes. "Oh, that's good," he said.

Derek ruffled his hair and he ducked his head. "I knew I was going to make it," he said proudly. "I'm going to call my mom at lunch, she'll be excited."

This was not how she wanted to spend her Tuesday night.

Emily dragged herself down the hall. The main building was decidedly creepy at night, the wood-paneled halls half lit and casting strange shadows. This place has to be haunted, she thought, trailing her hand along the slick polished banister. Definitely super haunted.

The English classroom door was propped open, light spilling out into the hall and illuminating the construction paper sign that said DEBATE CLUB in big permanent marker letters. She peeked inside. The supervising teacher sat at the desk while about fifteen other students in a half-circle of chairs, looking slightly out of place in their normal clothes and munching on chips and cookies.

Penelope brightened, already a beacon in her pink dress and purple glasses. "Emily!" she said. "You're here! I saved you a seat!"

Emily sighed. "Hi, Pen," she said.

"Oh, a nickname, I love nicknames," she said. Emily sat down beside her. "Your boots are killer, oh my god. Are you excited? I'm so excited."

"You're excited about everything," Emily teased. "Excited is your default setting."

Penelope shrugged. "I like finding joy in things," she said.

The teacher behind the desk stood up and Emily scowled. "I don't think I can find any joy in this," she said.

"Hi, everybody," the teacher said. "I'm Ms. Strauss, and I'm supervising the debate club this year."

Emily slunk down in her seat, crossing her arms over her chest. "You're not a fan of Strauss?" Penelope whispered.

"Not in the slightest," Emily whispered back. "She's my head of house. And my English teacher. And she likes rules."

"Prentiss, please sit up and refrain from talking, you'll have time to talk in a moment," Ms. Strauss said. Penelope turned to Emily, her mouth rounding in a shocked little O. "So I thought it would be fun to start with a little icebreaker. I want everyone to find a partner." Penelope grabbed Emily's arm. "I want you to pretend you're going on a vacation, and I want you to tell your partner the one item you absolutely have to bring with you."

"Phone," Emily said immediately. "This is stupid."

"Hm," Penelope mused. "Maybe a sensible pair of shoes, if we're going someplace touristy and walkable. Or maybe sunscreen, if it's sunny? Or snacks."

"You pack snacks for an airplane?" Emily said. "You know they'll feed you on a flight, right?"

"Not if it's a cross-country road trip," Penelope said. "And in that case I'm going to need teddy grahams and goldfish crackers."

"All right, everyone," Ms. Strauss called. "Now we're all going to our vacation on a boat."

"Okay, definitely sunscreen," Penelope whispered.

"And then disaster strikes!" Ms. Strauss continued. "The boat has sunk and we must all swim to safety. Discuss with your partner which of your items you'll want to keep. And...go!"

"Your stupid sunscreen!" Emily said, throwing her hands in the air. "My phone would be completely waterlogged, and there wouldn't be any signal anyway. There. Debate over. Can we go?"

Penelope scrunched up her face. "This isn't much of a debate," she said. "I thought there would be a lot more arguing."

"God, I wish there was more arguing, that's what I came here for," Emily sighed.

Spencer gathered up his backpack as the bell rang. There was a trick to getting the zipper closed and it just wasn't working; he could probably just hold it closed until he made it back to his room.

Penelope leaned over his desk. "I'm going right to ukulele club after this," she said, holding out her instrument case. "Look at it! I found a pink one!"

JJ smiled. "It's really cute," she said, slinging her bag over her shoulder.

"Do you guys want to start on our essays?" Spencer asked. He held his backpack carefully by his side as he followed them out of their classroom. "I have some ideas already."

"Oh, I would, but I have soccer practice," JJ said.

Penelope waved her ukulele case. "And I'm going to finally learn how to play this thing," she said.

He thought he was hiding his disappointment, but JJ patted his shoulder lightly. "We can work on it later," she said. "Maybe tomorrow after school?"

"Oh, no can do, I have theatre club with Hotch," Penelope said.

"Jesus, Penelope, did you leave yourself any time to get your homework done?" JJ asked.

Penelope blinked. "Of course, Jennifer. That's what homeroom is for."

"That sounds like a terrible plan," JJ said.

"It's not that uncommon, eighty-six percent of high schoolers procrastinate on their homework," Spencer offered.

"Maybe you'll outgrow it," JJ suggested.

"In college it goes up to eighty-eight percent."

"Well, we'll just have to work on weekends, I guess," JJ said. "See you guys later. I'm going to run laps in ninety-five degree heat."

"Oh, gross, good luck with that," Penelope said.

The girls split up, heading their separate ways. Spencer stayed where he was at the top of the stairs, tightening his precarious hold on his backpack. It wasn't a big deal, really. He could probably work better on his own, anyway.

"Move, Spencer Weed," a voice said sharply, and a hand yanked his backpack out of his grip.

"Hey!" he protested, but the canvas ripped, spilling its contents down the steps.

Neal and Dallas pushed past him on either side, shoving him roughly. "We told you to move," Neal taunted as they jogged down the steps, kicking his pencils.

Spencer clenched his hands into small tight fists. This was what he thought he'd escaped from. It wasn't supposed to happen here too.

He made his way down the stairs, quietly picking up his belongings and shoving them into what remained of his backpack. It was practically useless now, but he could manage it. It could be worse, really.

Someone knelt down beside him and he jumped. "Hey, kiddo," James said. "Did your backpack rip?"

"Yeah," he said.

James helped him pick up the last of his things. "Yikes, I think your backpack has seen better days," he said. "You might need a new one."

"Yeah, maybe," he said glumly. He straightened up, holding the backpack gingerly. "Thanks."

"Hey, I was going to head to the student union and get some coffee before I go to the library," James said. "Do you want to come with me?" Spencer hesitated. "My treat. I was going to pick up something for Dave and Alex anyway."

"Are you sure?" Spencer asked.

"Yeah, absolutely," he said. "Come on. You look like you need a little caffeine."

The student union was the newest building on campus, the exterior old fashioned and red-bricked to match, but bright and airy on the inside, carefully decorated and full of natural light. It had been a main feature on the St. Thaddeus website when he started doing his research for a new school, although it hadn't particularly caught his eye at the time.

The cozy coffee shop was tucked away in a corner, soft indie music playing on the speakers and students scattered around at the blond wood tables with their laptops and ceramic mugs, and the air smelled sweet and bitter-sharp all at once.

"Have you been to the Honeybean yet?" James asked. "It's pretty nice, they just added it last year. I don't think I could have gotten through finals without it."

Spencer shook his head. "I haven't really tried coffee before," he said. "What should I get?"

"Hm," James said. "Okay. Hot or cold?"

"Probably cold."

"Sweet or not sweet."

"Definitely sweet."

James laughed. "I can work with that," he said. He stepped up to the counter to order; Spencer hung back by his side and kept looking around, watching his surroundings.

"All right, my dude, here you go," James said. "Careful, though, it's pretty full."

Spencer balanced the cup carefully in his hand. The swirled whipped cream on top seemed promising. "What is it?" he asked.

James took the drink carrier with the other cups. "It's a blended white chocolate mocha," he said. "I think it's the sugariest thing on the menu." Spencer took a cautious sip. "What do you think?"

"It's good," he said, surprised. "But it could a little sweeter. There's a kind of...burnt-ish aftertaste."

"That's the coffee," James said. "You'll get used to it."

"Or I'll cover it up with sugar," Spencer said. He took another sip. "Yeah, this is really good."

He finished a third of his drink by the time they made it to the library. "Hey, I come bearing gifts," James said, setting the drink carrier down by Dave's elbow.

"Oh, thank god," Dave said. "You're a gift, Blake."

"Where's Alex?" James asked, picking up his iced tea.

"I don't know, some kind of Dewey decimal emergency," Dave shrugged. "Whatever it is that teenage librarians panic over." He raised an eyebrow. "Hey, little one. Did you really need that much sugar?"

"It's good!" Spencer said. He sat down next to Dave, his feet dangling above the floor. "I think I feel a little more awake."

"Oh, you need sugar and caffeine like I need a hole in the head," Dave said. "James, did you really give him coffee?"

"Why? Are kids not supposed to drink coffee?" James asked, perplexed.

Alex stomped over to them, shoving the shelving cart out of her way. "Oh my god, if I have to explain how alphabetical order goes by last name and not first name one more time I am going to explode," she said. "Oh, you got coffee?"

James handed her a drink. "Iced chai latte," he informed her.

"Bless you," she said. "How many shots?"


"Shots of what?" Spencer asked.

"Espresso," Alex said. She frowned. "James, did you get Spencer coffee?"

"Okay, did I mis something?" James said. "My mom has been giving me coffee for as long as I can remember." He frowned. "Wait, does coffee stunt your growth? I think I heard that somewhere."

"No, that's a myth," Alex said. "But he probably shouldn't have so much caffeine. He won't sleep."

"Oh, I don't sleep that much anyway," Spencer said. "I feel more awake now, though." He set his backpack down on the table. "I'm going to see how much work I can get done on my English essay."

"See? He's fine," James said.

"If he starts bouncing off the walls, I'm blaming you," Alex said, smoothing her hand over Spencer's untidy hair.

Hotch hovered outside the theater door. This was a bad idea. This was a very, very bad idea.

"What do you mean? This is a great idea," Penelope said cheerfully.

"Oh, god, did I say that out loud?"

"You sure did."

Hotch sighed. "Penelope, I shouldn't be here," he said. "I don't know anything about theatre."

"Oh, come on, I'm sure you've done some kind of school play," she said. "At least one?"

"I was supposed to be a monkey in The Wizard of Oz when I was six," he said. "I got the stomach flu."

"See, that's not-"

"I faked it," he said flatly. "The costume was stupid and I couldn't remember my line. My one line."

Penelope screwed up her face. "Okay, it is that bad," she said. "But at least you're motivated this time."

"Motivated by what?" he asked.

"Your crush on Haley Brooks."

He choked. "I do not have a crush on Haley Brooks!" he protested.

She linked her arm through his. "Your protests are adorable," she said. "Come on, Hotch. You're going to your first drama club meeting whether you like it or not."

He stifled a groan as she marched him down the center aisle of the house. About thirty other kids were on the stage, stretching and harmonizing loudly to a Broadway cast recording, trying to outdo each other. He tried to slow down, dragging his steps.

"Nope, nope, nope, keep going, Hotchner," Penelope said, propelling him up the stairs. He immediately found a spot in the back, away from the bright circle of stage lights, and sat down on the floor. She sat down beside him. "Don't worry, this isn't going to be terrible."

"No, this is terrible," he said. "I think I-"

He paused. Haley was standing by the speaker in a black tank top and hot pink shorts, her blonde hair tied up in a perky ponytail. She laughed at something Harper Hillman said, and his whole heart melted.

Penelope tipped his chin, closing his mouth. "Easy, tiger," she teased.

He swallowed hard. "I might be sick," he said. "I should go back to my room. I have homework to do anyway."

"You finished all of your homework," she said. She touched her hand to his forehead. "And you're not sick."

"No, no...I think I am," he said. "I should probably-"

"Hi, Haley!" Penelope called.

Haley glanced at her, then crossed to her with a smile. Hotch shrank down. "Penelope Garcia, no," he hissed. She smiled sweetly at him.

"Hey, guys," Haley said.

"Hi, Haley," Penelope said. "Congratulations on making the cheer squad."

Haley sat down beside them and stretched out her slim legs. "Thanks!" she said. "It was really tough this year. I got a little nervous."

"I'm, um, I'm sure you did great," Hotch blurted out.

Haley tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "Thank you," she said, almost shyly. Hotch smiled at her.

Harper Hillman switched off the cast recording and half the kids groaned. "Okay, you guys, cut it out," she said. "We're still waiting on the teacher, so in the meantime, we're going to play a game." A couple of kids shouted out suggestions. "No, ew, stop. We're going to play bippity bippity bop."

Apparently that was a good suggestion, judging by the cheers as everyone popped up off the floor. Hotch leaned over to Penelope. "What the fuck is that?" he whispered.

"It's a game, it's fun, stop freaking out," she whispered back.

He gritted his teeth. "It's easy," Haley said. "Harper's going to point to people and say 'bippity bippity.' If she points to you, you have say 'bop' before she finishes it. If she points to you and only says 'bop,' you can't say anything. If you say anything, you're out."

"And this is fun?" he said warily.

"Oh, that's just level one," Penelope said.

"There's more levels to this?"

Harper stood in the middle of the circle, almost as if she was holding court. The real theatre kids seemed to take it seriously, almost too seriously, half-crouching like runners at a starting line. Hotch flexed his hands. He was painfully conscious of Haley next to him, and he hadn't felt this gangly and awkward since his first growth spurt when he was eleven and kept running into doors because he couldn't remember how his limbs worked.

Harper pointed at him. "Bop," he blurted out, and she laughed at him.

"You're out, Lincoln House," she said, pointing to the wings. "Go on, shoo."

He reddened in embarrassment and stalked away, crossing his arms. This wasn't worth it. Haley Brooks was never going to notice him the way he wished she would, and this game was stupid, and he needed to focus on his schoolwork anyway.

Haley walked over to him. "Don't take Harper seriously, she's kind of snotty, but she's not that bad," she said.

"She's pretty bad," Hotch said.

Haley scrunched her nose. It was adorable, and he kind of felt like he might throw up. "Yeah, she is," she confessed. "But don't worry about it. Everybody else is super nice. And I think you'll pick up on this theatre stuff pretty quickly."

He looked down at her. "You think so?" he said.

She hip-checked him lightly. "Yeah, I think so," she said, and he smiled at her.

Derek trudged into the seventh floor common room, dragging his football bag behind him. "I'm exhausted," he announced.

"Good for you," Hotch said absently, not even glancing up from his homework. "Don't you dare leave your gear out here."

"Come on, cut me some slack, I've had practice every night this week," Derek protested. "They might start me in the first game of the season."

Hotch looked up. "Oh, that is good," he said. "Good for you."

"I'm gonna take a shower and crash," Derek said. "I seriously haven't been this tired ever in my life."

Hotch flipped a page in his math textbook. "All right, have a good time," he said absently.

Derek hoisted his bag onto his shoulder. He wasn't lying, he really was exhausted. At least it was Friday night and he could sleep in.

The door to his dorm room was closed but unlocked; he opened it up to find the lights on and Spencer asleep, curled up on top of his blanket like a kitten. He tiptoed into the room as quietly as he could manage. In the whole week, Derek had never caught him asleep. Usually Spencer stayed up reading a book with a small dollar store flashlight, and during the day his eyes were ringed with dark circles. If the kid could finally doze off, he would definitely do what he could to keep him asleep.

Derek set down his bag carefully and dug around in his drawers for clean clothes. At least showering this late at night meant that he could probably have the bathroom all to himself. Maybe he could even rig up his phone and play some music.

A soft noise caught his attention and he turned around. Spencer fidgeted, his mouth tugging down as he curled himself into a small, more protective little ball. "Hey, kid," he said. "You awake? You need to go back to sleep."

Spencer shifted around, mumbling under his breath. Derek set his clothes down. "Reid, you okay? he asked.

Suddenly Spencer bolted upright and screamed, too bright and blood curdling. Derek stumbled back. "Holy shit!" he said. "Kid, it's okay, I promise, it's okay."

He reached for him tentatively and Spencer scrambled back, covering his face. "Don't, don't, don't!" he screamed at the top of his lungs.

"Don't what?" Derek said, bewildered. "You're okay! Stop screaming!"

Hotch ran into the room. "What's wrong?" he demanded.

"I don't know, he just started screaming!" Derek said. "I don't what's happening!"

Hotch sat down beside Spencer and placed his hand on his knee. "Spencer, you're safe," he said, giving him a little shake. "It's just a bad dream."

Spencer's eyes flew open. He blinked unsteadily, his last scream dying in his throat, and unexpectedly he reached out and grabbed Hotch's arm. Hotch covered his small hand with his large one. "You're safe, Spencer," he repeated. "You're okay."

Spencer exhaled slowly. "'m sorry," he mumbled. His lower lip trembled and he pulled his hand away. "'m sorry."

"You don't have to be sorry," Derek said. "Is something wrong?" Spencer shook his head.

"Do you want to talk about it?" Hotch asked.

Spencer shook his head again and fumbled for a book. "I'm just going to read for while, I think," he said, his voice wobbling.

Derek caught Hotch's eye. There had to be something bad that kept that kid from sleeping and made him wake up screaming like he was getting axe murdered. But Spencer rolled onto his side and cuddled against his thin pillow, his face turned away from them, clearly not about to talk about whatever he was hiding.

They would just have to figure it out later. Just not now.

Chapter Text

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

"Jareau! Focus!"

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

bring snax

dont tell al

"What is happening right now?" he said aloud, stopping in the middle of the courtyard. His phone buzzed in his hand.

Alex Miller

Emily, if you don't want me to know, don't text it in a fucking group chat

Alex Miller

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.

"Hey, uh…Alex?"

Alex turned around. "Oh, no," she said. "What now, Anderson?"

Anderson fidgeted, looking sheepish. " 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."

"But I-"

"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.

Chapter Text

And you must bear your neighbor's burden within reason
And your labors will be borne when all is done, and nobody, nobody knows
Let the yoke fall from our shoulders
Don't carry it all, don't carry it all
We are all our hands in holders
Beneath this bold and brilliant sun

-"Don't Carry It All" by the Decemberists

Alex jumped as a wadded-up piece of paper bounced off the back of her head. "What the fuck, Emily, what was that for?" she said, twisting around in her chair to glare at her roommate.

Emily was sprawled out on the floor, her homework in piles around her but every textbook left closed. "I've been trying to get your attention for the past twenty minutes," she complained. Alex tossed the crumpled paper back at her. "Thank god you're an academic type, you'd never make it in athletics." Alex picked up an eraser and chucked it, bonking Emily in the nose. "Hey!"

"What's so important that you needed to get my attention?" Alex asked. "Is there someone on fire? Are you bleeding?"

"No, I'm just bored," Emily said. "Can we please get out of here?"

Alex frowned. "And go where?" she said, gesturing towards the rain tapping on the window. "You really want to go outside in this?"

"Honestly, I would go anywhere," Emily said.

"You can go," Alex shrugged, turning back to her homework.

Emily scrambled up from the floor. "Please?" she said. "Coffee. Let's get coffee. I'll pay. Please, I just need to get out of here."

Alex paused. "Seriously?" she said.

"Absolutely serious," Emily said. "I'm so tired of sitting around in here."

"Have you even started your homework?"

Emily glanced down at the piles on the floor. "Yeah, sure," she said. "I've...opened a book." Alex raised an eyebrow. "Don't start with me, Miller."

"I'm not starting anything," she said, raising her hands in surrender.

Emily rolled her eyes. "We'll pretend you weren't about to lecture me about the importance of the junior year GPA for college applications," she said.

"Well, since you brought it up-" Alex started to say. Emily crumpled up another piece of paper. "All right, all right. Never mind." She looked down at her Russian textbook, and then sighed heavily. "Fine. Let's go get coffee."

"Thank you!" Emily said as Alex closed her book. "Let's go, let's go, let's go. I'm going stir crazy."

Alex switched off her desk lamp and dug around in her side of the closet for her trusty rainboots. Today was the kind of day for practicality over any kind of fashion sense; leggings and one of her older brother's oversized tee shirts were a better choice than a cute dress.

Emily, on the other hand, had gone back to full punk, and was busy touching up her eyeliner in the mirror on the back of the door. "We can't get dresscoded on weekends, can we?" she asked.

"Not as far I know, but if it happens to anyone it'll be you," Alex said. She grabbed her raincoat off its hook, and after a moment picked up a book from her desk. "Come on, let's get this over with." She locked the door behind them and dropped the key in her pocket.

Their RA was in the common room, lounging on the couch with her laptop. "What's up, nerds?" she said, biting back a yawn.

"Hey, Elle," Alex said. "We're going to get coffee."

Elle sat up, looked at the window, and looked back at them. "Seriously?" she said. "What's wrong with you? It's disgusting outside."

"I don't know, it's Prentiss's idea," Alex sighed.

"Yeah, good luck with that," Elle said, turning back to her laptop.

Alex made her way down the stairs, Emily clomping behind her, but she stopped at the doors to pull her hood over her head and tuck her book inside the safety of her coat before they went outside. It had been raining all day, the sky gray and gloomy and the temperature dropping dramatically from blistering humid heat to just a warm thick mugginess, and the puddles forming in the pathways threatened to blur together and flood.

They made the walk to the student union, bursting through the glass double doors into the bright cheery warmth. "Okay, okay, you might have been right," Emily said, closing her umbrella. "Wow, the rain is really gross."

"Is this the part where I'm allowed to say 'I told you so'?" Alex said as she pushed her hood back. She glanced around. "But I mean...I guess it was a decent idea. It is nice to get out of the dorm. And I can use some caffeine."

"Get whatever you want," Emily said. She pushed her damp hair back from her face as they got in line at the register. "What do you usually do on weekends? Stay inside and do homework?"

"Yeah, pretty much," she said. "That, and I kept getting stuck with weekend shifts at the library, so…"

"You need to live a little," Emily said. "Get out more. There's more to life than homework and books."

"Where would I be going?" Alex asked dryly. "This isn't Rome, Emily."

"Oh, trust me, I know," she said. She poked her lightly. "It's your turn. Order."

"Do you need any help?" Penelope asked.

Spencer raised himself up on his tiptoes and dropped his letter through the mail slot. "I've got it," he said, dropping back on his heels. The rubber sides of his shoes popped, pulling away from the faded canvas.

"Who are you writing to?" she asked.

He closed the little door. "Family," he said shortly. "What about you? Do you write letters to your family?"

"Not really," Penelope said. "I mean, yes, sometimes, but usually I just call. I'm supposed to call my grandparents at least three times a week. I would text, or at least email, but my grandparents aren't exactly tech-savvy, so it has to be a phone call."

A lump unexpectedly rose in her throat. She hadn't thought much about home in the past week, she'd been too busy, but now she suddenly missed the little yellow townhouse, her grandfather's little rose garden and her grandmother's pancakes on Sunday mornings.

Spencer tilted his head. "Are you okay?" he asked.

"Yeah, I'm fine," she said.

"Can we get coffee before we go back?" Spencer asked eagerly.

"Yeah, sure," she said, sliding her hands in her pockets. "Maybe it'll stop raining by the time we walk back."

The coffee shop was almost empty; most likely other students were hiding in the safety of their dorms instead of braving the rain. But she immediately recognized the two girls sitting at a corner table. "Hi!" Penelope called. She grabbed Spencer by the wrist and dragged him behind her.

"Hey, you two," Alex said. "What're you doing out here?"

"I had to mail my letter," Spencer said.

Emily tucked her dark hair behind her ear. "Where's your dad and the rest of the ducklings?" she asked.

Spencer frowned. "Our dad?"

"Hotch didn't want to go out in the rain," Penelope said. "And JJ and Derek are at their sports practices."

"Well, go get some coffee and come sit with us," Emily said, pulling out the empty chair next to her. "Keep us company. I'm trying to get Miller to be more fun, she just wants to stay home and read books."

"Reading is fun," Spencer objected.

Alex smiled. "See, this is why you're my favorite," she said. Spencer brightened.

Emily slid out of her chair, her empty mug dangling from her hooked fingers. "I think I need more caffeine," she said. "Come on, you two. Coffee time. Alex, you need anything?"

"I'm good."

Penelope gazed up at the black chalkboard menus, scanning the neat white lettering. Usually her grandmother didn't let her drink coffee. She could hear her now- you'll stunt your growth, Penny, have a hot chocolate or tea instead- but her grandfather always let her have sips of his coffee, the way he liked it, strong enough to thin paint and softened with only a little bit of sugar.

Her vision blurred.

"Okay, Penelope, your turn, what do you want?" Emily asked. "You strike me as a latte girl. Do you…" Her voice trailed off. "Are you okay?"

She wiped at her eyes. "I'm fine," she said, her voice wobbling.

"I don't think you're fine," Emily said. "Are you...uh, don't cry. It's okay."

"I'm not crying," she sniffled.

Emily took her by the shoulders and turned her around. "Go sit with Alex, I think she'll be better at this than me," she said. "What do you want? I'll get it for you."

"I don't know!" she wailed.

"Okay, okay, go, I'll take care of it," Emily said, giving her a push back towards Alex.

She trudged back to the table. Alex rested her chin in her hand as she read, her book propped open on the table, but she glanced up as Penelope sat down. "That was fast," she said. She paused. "Hey, are you okay?"

"My grandmother doesn't let me drink coffee!" Penelope burst out.

Alex blinked, startled, and closed her book. "Okay," she said slowly. "Can you elaborate a little bit?"

Penelope sighed. "So my grandmother doesn't let me drink coffee because she thinks it'll stunt my growth, but my grandfather lets me drink his coffee when he's not looking, and's not good, but it's a really nice gesture and it always makes me think of him," she said.

Alex scrunched up her face, looking up at the ceiling for a moment, and then relaxed. "I see," she said. "I think you're homesick."

"Is that what this is?" Penelope said. "I hate it. It sucks."

Alex laughed. "Yeah, it does," she said. "Trust me, I still remember my first year here. I was so miserable. I called my mom every day my first two weeks, absolutely bawling, and then begging her not tell my dad because he'd just tell me to come home." She reached over and patted Penelope's hand. "You'll feel better soon once you start adjusting, I promise. Staying busy will help."

"I can stay busy," she said. "I signed up for eleven extracurriculars."

"Okay, that might be too busy."

Emily set down a large cup and a cake pop down in front of Penelope. "Hope you like it," she said. "Feel better?"

"Maybe not better, but I've been diagnosed with homesickness."

"Oh, shit, that sucks," Emily said.

"Don't you get homesick?" Alex asked.

Emily rolled her eyes. "I've moved six times back and forth across Europe, if I got homesick for anything I wouldn't survive," she said.

Alex tapped her phone screen and looked at the time. "When are Derek and JJ done with their practices?" she asked.

"Four, I think," Spencer said, jabbing the end of his straw on the table in an effort to pry off the wrapper.

Alex pulled it off for him and handed it back. "Maybe we can all do something fun," she suggested. "Get your mind off things."

"What can we do?" Emily asked. "It's disgusting outside and we can't go anywhere."

"Let's have a movie night," Alex suggested. "I'll text Dave and James, see if they want to join us too." She picked up her phone and frowned. "Who changed my name in the group chat to 'mom friend Miller'?"

"It was Emily's idea," Penelope said immediately.

"I'm changing your name, then," Alex said. "Penelope, help me change it."

The door banged open and Hotch bolted upright. "What the fuck?" he gasped.

Derek leaned in the doorway, his football bag dangling off his shoulder. "Oh, sorry, I didn't know you were sleeping," he said. "You haven't been answering your texts."

Hotch pressed his palms over his eyes. "Because I was asleep," he said. He fumbled blindly for his phone. "Thirty-seven missed texts?"

"Welcome to the group chat," Derek grinned.

Hotch scrolled through the messages. "You woke me up to tell me I missed texts about a movie night?" he said, yawning. "That's it?"

"Well, the girls want to have it up here in our common room," Derek said. "Alex and Emily said that their RA wouldn't care about having boys on their floor after designated hours, but their head teacher would."

"Yeah, Strauss would freak out," Hotch said. "And Gideon won't care." He yawned again. "Yeah, yeah, tell 'em it's fine, I guess."

"Oh, good," Derek said. "I already told them they could. They should be here any second now." He slapped the doorframe lightly. "I'm gonna go shower. Practice kicked my ass today."

Hotch waved him off dismissively. He still wasn't quite awake, but according to his phone he'd been napping for at least an hour. Might as well get up.

He heard the footsteps on the stairs and winced. Yeah, going back to sleep was definitely out of the question. "Hotch!" Emily bellowed. "Did you get our texts?"

"I got them, I got them," he called back, wandering out of his room towards the top of the stairs. "Movie night. I got it. Can you guys not drip water everywhere?"

"Sorry," Alex said, peeling her raincoat off gingerly. "It's still really gross outside."

She draped her coat over the banister; Emily shook out her umbrella in gleeful abandon and propped it up against the wall. "Penelope is grabbing stuff from her room, and JJ just got back from soccer," she said. "They'll be up in a little bit."

"Yeah, Derek just got back from football, he's taking a shower," Hotch said, frowning. "Spencer? You okay?"

Spencer squinted up at him. "Uh-huh, why?"

"You're drenched," Hotch said. "Don't you have an umbrella or a coat or something?"

Spencer looked down at himself. He wore a red pullover hoodie, the frayed cuffs hanging over his hands, and it was soaking wet, the hem hanging past his hips. "It doesn't really rain much in Las Vegas," he said, pushing the hood back. His long hair was damp too, curling at the ends.

"That's a fair point," Alex said. "Go get changed and hang that up to dry."

Spencer bit his lip. Hotch wondered if he had anything to change into. "Here," he said, unzipping his dark blue hoodie. "You can wear this instead."

"Thanks," Spencer said, surprised. "I'll be right back."

He darted down the hall to his room, water dripping in his wake. "That kid is falling apart," Emily remarked.

"You don't even know the half of it," Hotch said.

"Is he still not sleeping?" Alex asked.

"Nope," Hotch said. "And he-" He paused; he could hear JJ and Penelope on the stairs. "I'll tell you later."

Penelope burst into the common room, her arms laden down with brightly colored pillows and blankets. "I have more if we need them!" she said.

"More?" Hotch repeated.

"She does, trust me," JJ said, dumping her armful on the floor. Her long blonde hair was wet from her shower and smelled strongly of floral conditioner. "You should see our room."

"You can't have a movie night sleepover if you're not cozy," Penelope said.

"Wait, wait, wait, this isn't a sleepover," Hotch said, raising his hands. "Gideon might not care, but Strauss certainly will."

"Don't worry, Prentiss and I will leave on time," Alex said. "We won't get anybody in trouble."

Five different phones buzzed simultaneously; Penelope checked hers first. "Dave and James are on the way over," she said. "Do we need to wait for them to start?"

"Oh, we can go ahead and put in the first movie," Alex said.

"Wait a minute, the first one?" Hotch said. "How many movies are we watching?"

Alex shrugged. "We can probably go through two before we have to call it a night," she said.

Emily plopped down on an armchair. "Don't freak out, Dad, it's not school night," she said.

"I'm not freaking out," he frowned.

Spencer ran back into the room, Derek at his heels. "Hey, baby girl, I got your text, I-" He stopped. "You told me to bring more pillows and blankets, but I think you've got enough."

"Oh, no, you can never have too many," she said, busily setting up her nest in the middle of the floor.

Derek rolled his eyes and handed Spencer a pillow and a soft ivory blanket with a satin edging. "Here, pretty boy, you take these," he said.

"What am I supposed to do with them?"

"Get comfy," Derek said. Spencer set the pillow and blanket down in the corner of the couch.

Hotch's frown deepened. "Spencer, what's wrong with your shoes?" he asked.

Spencer paused and looked down at his feet. His left shoe was torn in half, the canvas upper completely torn away from the rubber sole. "Oh," he said. "I hadn't realized." He sighed. "I'll just tape them back together."

"What do you mean, tape them back together?" Emily asked.

He unlaced his shoes and took them off carefully; today his left sock was pink striped and his right was solid orange. "Like my last ones," he said. "They'll last a little longer that way. Maybe I can find some gaff tape instead of duct tape. Gaff tape has a cotton backing instead of vinyl. Did you know it was invented by a cinematographer?"

"No, I didn't know that," Hotch said.

He caught Alex's look of concern and he shrugged at her. But before anyone could press Spencer further, Penelope bounced up from her nest on the floor. "There!" she said. "Perfect. Absolutely perfect. So what movie are we going to watch?"

"I think you get first pick," Alex said.

"I pick Frozen," Penelope said immediately, and Derek groaned.

"Seriously?" he said. "You're going to make us watch Frozen?"

"It's a good movie!" she defended. "And Alex said I got to pick first!"

"Ooh, don't drag me into this," Alex said, sitting down on the couch.

Derek huffed impatiently. "All right, fine," he said. "Let's watch a princess movie."

Hotch took the other armchair, giving into another yawn. Derek, JJ, and Penelope piled into the pillow and blanket fort on the floor; Spencer climbed up on the couch next to Alex. The dark blue hood swallowed him up like a cocoon, but at least he looked a little better now that he wasn't wearing his soaking wet sweatshirt.

He eyed Spencer's sneakers out of the corner of his eye as the movie started playing on the common room TV. There was no way possible that those shoes could be fixed. The left one was far past saving, and the right shoe was almost unwearable too.

"So this movie was loosely based on Hans Christian Anderson's The Snow Queen, but Walt Disney tried adapting the story into a film as early as 1940," Spencer said. "The episodic nature of the-"

Penelope turned around, her finger to her lips. "Sh! It's starting!" she said.

"Have you even seen Frozen, Spence?" JJ asked.

He frowned. "No," he said. "But I-"

Penelope flapped her hand at him. "It's starting!" he repeated. Spencer scowled and leaned back against the couch, pulling at the soft blanket he'd borrowed from Derek.

Hotch didn't bother paying attention. He'd seen the movie a million times; when he left campus to stay with his aunt and uncle for the two weeks between the end of the St. Thaddeus summer camp sessions and the beginning of the new school year, it was all that Sean would watch. Well, that and the sequel.

"Okay, wait, I don't understand," Emily said. "Did the rocks just kidnap that child and his baby reindeer?"

"Not exactly, they kind of...well, now that you mention it. They might have kidnapped Kristoff."

Hotch fiddled with his phone while the movie played, only half paying attention. Across from him Alex opened her book, chewing idly on her thumbnail and curling her legs up underneath her. Occasionally his phone buzzed with updates in the group chat from Dave and James.

Suddenly Penelope whipped around to stare at him. He nearly dropped his phone. "Why are you looking at me like that?" he said.

"Are you singing along?" she asked.

"No," he said. "Absolutely not." His phone vibrated. "Hey, James and Dave are here. Who's going to run downstairs and let them in."

"Nose goes!" Derek said, and Penelope and JJ followed suit quickly. "All right, Spencer, that's you."

"What if I don't want to?" he said.

"Too bad, you lost," Derek said, grinning at him.

"Hotch didn't play."

"I don't count," Hotch said. "Go on." Spencer sighed and climbed down from the couch. As soon as the sound of his footsteps faded away he got up. "Hey, Alex? Can I borrow you for a second?"

"Hm?" she said absently. "Yeah, sure."

She set her book aside. "Derek, can you come with us?" Hotch asked.

Derek got up from the floor and Hotch led them down the hallway. "What's going on?" Alex asked.

Hotch opened the door to Derek and Spencer's shared dorm room. "We need to talk," he said.

"About what?"

Derek flipped on the lights. "So, just by looking in here...which side is mine and which side is Spencer's?" he asked.

Alex looked around, and Hotch saw recognition dawn in her dark eyes. "Oh my god," she said. There was such a sharp contrast- Derek's belongings tossed around on his side, the posters and photos, his cozy bed heaped with pillows and blankets; Spencer's single blanket and pillow, his school shoes set neatly on the floor, his half a dozen well-loved books arranged on the shelf.

"Yeah," Hotch said.

Alex stared, her hand falling absently against her throat. "That's it?" she said.

"That's it," Derek said. "Well, not even. The pillow is Hotch's and the sheets are mine. He didn't even have those."

"Everything he has, he carried in his backpack," Hotch said. "Don't even bother looking in the drawers. There's nothing there but a couple of pairs of mismatched socks."

"You're fucking kidding me," Alex said. She walked around in a slow circle, bewildered. "He doesn't...there's no clothes, no knickknacks." She looked at Hotch. "There's no pictures of his family. Has he said anything about his family?"

"He's mentioned his mother," Hotch said. "He said that she was the one who lied about his age on his application, but the way he was talking made it sound like he was the one who submitted his application himself."

"Hold on, hold on," Derek interrupted. "He lied about his age?"

Hotch shifted his weight. "I promised him I wouldn't say anything," he said. "But I...he's not ten. He's nine."

"Nine?" Alex repeated. "You are fucking shitting me, Hotchner. He's only nine years old?"

"He'll be ten in October," Hotch confessed.

"Holy shit," Derek said.

Alex pressed her fingertips to her temples. "So you're telling me that Spencer is nine years old and might have lied in order to move across the country for school?" she said.

"That's, uh...that's what it looks like," Hotch said. He'd promised Spencer he wouldn't say anything, but it was such a relief to tell someone else instead of worrying on his own.

"Do you think he ran away?" Alex asked. "Do you think his parents know where is? Does he even have parents?"

"I don't know," Hotch admitted.

She exhaled slowly. "He wrote a letter the other day," she said. "I don't remember the address, and he didn't say who it was for. Maybe he was writing to his family."

"Maybe," Hotch said, but he didn't sound convincing even to himself. "We'll just have to watch out for him. Keep a close eye."

Alex nodded. "God knows nobody else has," she said.

"Hey, guys! Dave and James are here and they brought pizza."

Hotch ushered them out of the room; Derek flipped off the lights. "Not a word," he told them. "I wasn't supposed to tell you that he was lying."

"If he's lying about that, what else is he lying about?" Derek asked. He shifted his weight. "What's he been having nightmares about?"

Hotch froze. He hadn't even thought about that.

"Come on, you guys!" JJ called again.

"We'll talk about this later," he said quietly.

He tried to push his worry away as they rejoined the others in the common room. "Hey, there you are," James said, grinning at them. "We brought food!"

"How many pieces can we have each?" Derek asked eagerly. "Because I-"

"Had football, yeah, I can guess," Dave teased.

"Let Spencer go first," Alex said.

"All right, all right, we'll go youngest to oldest," Dave said. "C'mere, passerotto, what do you want?"

Spencer wrinkled his nose. "Passerotto?" he repeated.

"It means little sparrow," Emily explained, ruffling his hair. "It's a term of endearment for little kids. Go on, hurry up, we can't eat until you pick."

"What do we owe you for the pizza?" Hotch asked.

Dave waved his hand. "Don't worry about it," he said. "It's nothing. What are we watching?" He squinted at the image paused on the TV. "Which princess is that?"

"Wait, have you never seen Frozen?" Penelope asked. "Should we start the movie over?"

"No, no, I can catch up," Dave said. "It's fine."

Hotch went back to his armchair with a paper plate in his hands as JJ started the movie back up. Alex took her seat on the couch again, but she didn't open her book. Spencer sat beside her, chatting a quiet mile a minute, his place nearly untouched on his lap. Every so often she gently redirected his attention back towards eating.

When the first movie finished, they voted on a followup (Penelope lobbied for the sequel, but she was outvoted.) Derek and JJ made a run to the vending machine for candy and sodas, lugging them back with their arms full.

They were almost done with the second movie when Tara Lewis poked her head in. "Hey, Hotchner, do you have my girls?" she said. "I'm missing Jennifer and Penelope."

"We're here!" Penelope said. "We'll be down soon, I promise."

Tara raised an eyebrow. "It's movie night," Hotch shrugged. "And you know Gideon won't care."

"That's true," Tara said. "Ladies, come right down when you're done, okay?"

"We will," JJ promised.

Hotch leaned back in his armchair, his chin resting in his hand. He had to admit, it was kind of nice. This sort of thing never happened in his first two years at St. Thaddeus. He hadn't exactly made friends- plenty of acquaintances, and he and Derek got along really well, but he never found himself in a specific group.

"Who gets to pick the movie next week?" James asked, tossing a handful of skittles in his mouth.

"We're doing this again?" Hotch said.

"Yeah, why not?" Derek said. "Oh, man, have you guys seen Hereditary?"

"We're not watching scary movies!" Penelope protested.

"Why not?"

"They're scary!"

"That's the whole point," JJ said.

"We should start with Midsommar," Emily said. "Now that's a good movie."

"It's a good movie, but I don't know if I ever want to see it again," Alex said. "I think I'm good with just the one time."

"The reviews were really good," Spencer said sleepily. He was curled up beside Alex, his cheek pressed against her arm, and he hugged the borrowed ivory blanket to his chest. "A24 has really been doing well creating modern horror films."

"Have you seen any of them?" Alex asked.

"No, but I've read the synopses."

"Definitely not the same," Derek said. "But I think we should start with Hereditary."

"No! I'll have nightmares!"

"Fine, we'll balance it out with something less scary."

"I get to pick it!"

"You just picked this one."

"Fine, we'll make a schedule and rotate."

Hotch grinned. It was nice. It really was.

Chapter Text

I wanna ask you


Do you ever sit and wonder,
It's so strange
That we could be together for
So long, and never know, never care
What goes on in the other one's head?

Things I've felt but I've never said
You said things that I never said
So I'll say something that I should have said long ago:

You don't know me at all
(You don't know me)
You don't know me at all (at all)

--"You Don't Know Me (At All)" by Ben Folds and Regina Spektor


Derek walked out of his last class with his half-zipped backpack dangling recklessly off his shoulder. Whatever he'd learned in class was already forgotten; he had practice in thirty minutes and he was more than ready. His first varsity game was on Friday and it was all he could think about.

He rounded the corner and nearly ran over two overeager freshmen. "Hey, Morgan!" they chorused.

"Hey," he said, slightly startled.

"Are you ready for the game on Friday?" the wide-shouldered blond asked.

"Sure hope so," he said. He shifted his backpack so he could zip it shut the rest of the way. "You two are junior varsity, right? You're Joseph Neal, and…"

"Arik Dallas," the dark-haired one said. "Yeah, and you're a legend on the JV team, dude. Last year you were second string JV and now you're a starter on varsity?"

Derek grinned. The flattery made his heart flap against his ribs. "Well, don't speak too soon, Coach Buford hasn't decided if he wants me to start yet," he said. "And besides, the growth spurt I had last summer sure helped."

A big hand clapped on his shoulder. "Don't sell yourself so short, Morgan. You put in a lot of hard work this summer and it shows."

He turned around to see two of his older varsity teammates standing behind him- Jordan Maclain, a movie star handsome senior, and Tanner Thornton, a heavily freckled junior with a gap between his front teeth. Suddenly he felt as starstruck as Dallas and Neal. "Oh, hey," he said, unable to think of anything else to say.

"Seriously, boys, take a page from Morgan's book," Maclain said. "He did everything right. That growth spurt helped, but nothing replaces dedication."

"Thanks," he stammered out.

Suddenly a blonde comet hurtled into him, clattering in her oxford heels. "Chocolate thunder!" Penelope said, throwing her arms around his waist. "I know you have practice tonight, but I just found out from a very reliable source- which is my own incredible hacking ability, thank you very much- that they're going to have corn nuggets in the dining hall tonight. I'll save you some in case you're running late!"

"Thanks, baby girl, you're an angel," he laughed.

"See you later! Have a good time at practice!" she said. "Bye, Derek's football friends!"

She skittered to rejoin JJ and Spencer at the end of the hallway; JJ offered a small wave, but Spencer stayed half hidden behind her. "Was that your girlfriend?" Maclain teased.

Derek's cheeks heated up. "No, no, just a friend," he said. "She's like that with everybody."

Neal dug around for a second in his backpack and feigned surprise. "Oh, I...forgot something," he said. He grinned at Dallas. "Let's go look for it."

"Yeah," Dallas said. "See you later."

The two of them scurried off after JJ and Penelope. Maclain checked his phone. "We'd better be going too," he said. "Practice is in twenty minutes, and you know how Coach gets."

He headed off down the hall and Derek started to follow him, but Thornton caught him by the arm. "Hey," he said sharply. "You've gotta be careful."

Derek frowned. "Why?"

Thornton glanced around, then tugged him aside. "You and me...we've got it harder around here," he said. He pointed to the emblem on his blazer, the gold embroidered St. Thaddeus emblem and Lincoln stitched in neat red script. "That Lincoln House've got to watch your reputation."

"What the hell does that mean?" Derek said, perplexed. "They're my friends."

"If you want to get anywhere, you've got to get as far as Lincoln House as possible," Thornton said. "You wanna know how I got where I am? Forgetting that that's where I belong. If I forget, then everybody else forgets."

"Why does it matter?" Derek said.

Thornton laughed. "Aw, kid," he said. "Your talent got you in the door, but you've got to stay aware of your surroundings if you want to stay." He tossed his arm over Derek's shoulder. "Stick with me. I got you."

One of Alex's hidden talents was walking while reading, but in retrospect, maybe she shouldn't try to do it with a 900 page hardback. It was a little too hard to balance with one hand. But she couldn't put it down, so she juggled it carefully as she walked.

She took the shortcut through the language arts hallway; the crowds of kids leaving their sixth period classes had dissipated and this was the fastest way to get to the library. Maybe there wouldn't be too much work to be done and she could finish her book during her shift.

She rounded the corner, the book slipping from her hand, and as she caught it she looked up to see a familiar little figure pressed up against the wall. Two older boys, taller and broader, dug through the contents of his ripped backpack. "Hey!" she shouted, and their heads jerked up like scolded dogs. They dropped the backpack and scattered like roaches, running the opposite way down the hall. "Hey, come back here!"

For a split second she thought about running after them, but they weren't the priority. She knelt down beside Spencer, dropping the book on the floor and cupping his little face in her hands. "Are you all right?" she asked.

"They wanted my phone," he said. "Joke's on them, I don't have one." He offered her a little half smile, one corner of his mouth turning up more than the other and a dimple popping in his cheek. "It's okay. They didn't hurt me or anything."

Alex relaxed. "Good," she said. "It looks like they tore up your backpack pretty badly, though."

"Oh, no, it already looked like that," Spencer said. He scrambled to his feet and held out his hand to help her up. "Are you opening the library?"

"Uh-huh," she said. "Do you want to come with me?"

He nodded eagerly as he picked up her book and handed it to her. "I've got some homework I could get done," he said as they started walking down the hall. "It's not due till Friday, but I might as well get it done. Are you reading David Copperfield? That's one of my favorites."

"Mine too," she said. "Although I'm partial to Bleak House."

"That's one of the first books to mention spontaneous human combustion!" Spencer said. "Actually, though, most documented cases of potential spontaneous human combustion usually involve some kind of lighting source."

He continued to chatter brightly as they walked down the hall, but he slipped his small hand into hers. His fingers were ice cold and shaking. She squeezed gently, holding his hand tight, and let him talk, adding little interested noises to make sure he knew she was listening.

David was waiting at the locked library door, fiddling with his phone. "There you are, Miller," he said, exasperated. "You're late. And you haven't answered any of my texts."

"Chill, Rossi," Alex said, letting go of Spencer's hand to unlock the door. "I'm only...three minutes behind. Where's Blake?"

"He's got an interview for the hospital internship," Dave said. She opened the door and turned on the lights. "Finally, thank you." He zipped past her, striding over to his favorite seat at his favorite table, and dumped his bag on the chair before heading to the stacks.

"Where's he going in such a hurry?" Spencer asked.

"Probably true crime," Alex said. "And...ah, yes. There he goes. Right to the three hundreds." She walked behind the circulation desk, dropping her messenger bag on the floor, and dug around in her secret snack drawer. "Chocolate or not chocolate?"

He frowned. "What's not chocolate?" he asked. She held out a bag of Hershey kisses and a package of Twizzlers. "Oh! Non chocolate, please."

She handed them over, then hesitated. "Wait a second," she said, rummaging around in the drawers. "I know...that should still be good...aha!" She held out a tube of superglue. "Do you think this can help keep your sneakers together?"

"Maybe," he said, taking the tube and inspecting the label carefully.

"At least until you can get new ones," she said. "This can tide you over."

The corner of his mouth tugged down. "Yeah," he said, but he didn't sound very convinced. "I'm gonna go work on my homework. Thanks for the glue. And the candy."

"Any time," she said.

He wandered off towards the windowseat that was quickly becoming his favorite spot, his backpack awkwardly bundled up under his arm. Alex frowned. After a moment, she grabbed a small bag of pistachios. She would definitely text Hotch later, keep him up with this bullying incident, but right now this was more important.

Dave had set up camp- books stacked around him like a fortress, a yellow legal pad and a black felt tip pen at his elbow, his Macbook closed and waiting for him. A sophomore girl started to put her backpack down in the chair next to him. "This table is occupied," he said absently. "Sit somewhere else."

She made a face and moved to another table. Alex sat down in the seat across from him. "I said, occupied," he said. She nudged the pistachios towards him; he glanced up and accepted her offering. "Thanks."

She glanced around to see if anyone was listening, now that students were beginning to trickle in, and leaned forward, her arms folded on the table and her chin resting on her hands. "Psst," she said. "Uncle Moneybags."

"No," he said, opening his Macbook.

She flipped it closed. "I have a proposition for you," she said.

He scowled. "This better be good."

"We need to get the little one some new shoes," she whispered. "And a new backpack."

Dave's scowl deepened. "The little one?" he repeated. "Who are you…" His eyebrows lifted. "Oh, yeah. That little one. Yeah, his shoes are in bad shape. You need my credit card?"

Alex hesitated. "It's...a bit more than than that," she said. "He has nothing."

"What do you mean?"

"Hotch and Derek showed me his room," she said. "David, he doesn't have anything. His parents...whoever sent him to school didn't give him anything. No bedding other than a blanket, no coat, almost no clothes."

"Are you serious?" he said.

She nodded. "Hotch said that everything he brought with him was in that ripped up backpack, and it was mostly books," she said.

Dave drummed his fingers on the lid of his laptop. "I'll see what I can do," he said. "Talk to Emily too. I have a feeling her credit limit might be even higher than mine."

Alex leaned back, relieved. "Thanks," she said. She picked up one of his books. "Truman Capote?"

"Research," he said.

Alex peeked through the stacks. "What case are you writing about now, Stephen King?" she asked. "And do your parents know about this?"

He blushed red and grabbed it back. "Shut up," he said. "And you know they don't. And if they ask you if I chose creative writing or logic for my elective-"

"Tell them you chose logic, I got it, I got it," she said. "Don't worry, Rossi, your secret is safe with me."


His fingertips burned a little from the superglue and the canvas was stained with dark splotches, and there was a chance he might have glued his sock to his shoe, but at least it was holding together. He could probably get through gym class at least. Penelope and Hotch had theatre club later, maybe he could get one of them to snag him some gaff tape from backstage.

Spencer capped the tube and dropped it in his pocket before unlatching the bathroom stall door. It was quiet in the locker room, which meant the other ninth graders had left, which meant it was probably safe to emerge.

The rest of the ninth graders swarmed the bleachers, a sea of gray and navy uniformed teenagers, their conversations blurring and bouncing and echoing off the walls and polished floor. Spencer climbed unsteadily to the third row of the silver bleachers, sliding in beside Penelope. She'd swapped her light up sneakers for a more sensible pair, but still neon pink.

"Are you-" she started to say, but the gym teacher was already calling for their attention and the rush of conversation began to die down.

Spencer folded himself forward, arms crossed and resting on his knees, his heart rapidly sinking in his chest. A vast assortment of equipment and gymnastics mats were set up across the gym, preparing for a circuit of various fitness tests. This was not going to go well.

He knew his limitations. He wasn't a good runner, he wasn't strong and sturdy, he didn't have any muscles to speak of. Already he was four, five, six years younger than everyone else in the room, and he knew that even for ten- well, nine, if he wasn't lying to himself like he lied to everybody else- he was small for his age.

The last time he'd gone to a doctor he was eight. His father had gotten fed up about getting voicemails about the missed appointments his mother scheduled but never remembered. He'd taken a whole morning off from work, reminding him of it at every turn. They hadn't seemed too alarmed at his height, they promised he'd hit his growth spurts when he was old enough, but they'd warned his father that he was in the lower end of the percentile for his weight, that he needed him to keep an eye out for him. His father had taken the papers and pamphlets they'd given him and set them on the kitchen counter, and in short order they were buried with dirty dishes and past due bills, never to be touched again.

"Guys, this is gonna murder me," Penelope groaned as the coach blew the whistle for them to line up. "I wasn't built for this. I have a delicate constitution."

"This class is pass/fail based on participation," JJ reminded her. "Just do the bare minimum and get over it."

Spencer got up from the uncomfortable metal bleachers. "If this wasn't a required class I'd-"

He stumbled forward, falling down the steps with a loud metallic thump. For a second he just laid there on the cold slick floor, his breath catching in his chest with panic. At first he thought he'd just tripped, but-

"Very smooth, Spencer Weed," Neal snickered as he stepped over him.

"Nice shoes, by the way," Dallas added. "Dig them out of the garbage yourself?"

He kicked him lightly in the ribs on his way out. Spencer clenched his fists. He'd struck his chin on the way down and the pain spiked into his jaws, making his teeth ache, and his eyes were burning. But he wasn't going to cry. Not now. Not again. He'd promised.

"Oh my god, are you okay?" Penelope asked. "What happened?"

"Nothing," he said. "I tripped."

JJ sat down beside him and silently began to pluck at his shoelaces. They were knotted together, the worn-through strings connecting his shoes together. "They're bastards," she said. "What did you ever do to them?"

"Most bullies pick on other kids because of their own personal insecurities," Spencer said, but he didn't sound convincing even to himself.

"You should get back at them," Penelope suggested. "Give them a taste of their own medicine. Maybe it'll make them stop."

"That's a great idea, Penelope, but it's gym class. I don't think there's much I'd be capable of," he said dryly.

JJ tied his shoes into tightly double-knotted bows and helped him up. "Are you sure you're okay?" she asked. "Your chin looks like it's going to bruise."

He touched his chin lightly; the skin felt hot and tender and she was probably right. "I'll be fine," he said. "We should go before the coach realizes we're behind."

He didn't think class could get much worse. And yet, somehow it did.

Neal and Dallas lined up behind them, watching him, whispering snide comments about him under their breath when the girls were distracted, making loud shrieks and whistles and claps so they could laugh when he jumped. He gritted his teeth and said nothing, but the temptation to take Penelope's advice grew stronger and stronger.

The chin up bar loomed in the distance, the biggest obstacle yet. JJ was able to get to it easily, pulling herself up at least half a dozen times before dropping to the ground, but Penelope gazed up at it as if it was a mile high. "There's no way," she said.

"Yes, you can," JJ said. "Just do one, okay? I'll help you up."

He sensed a presence behind him, leaning over his shoulder. "Did you break your face when you fell, Spencer Weed?" Neal said. "Sure sounded like it did."

He whipped around. "Why can't you just leave me alone?" he demanded. "I didn't do anything to you."

Dallas smiled, sharp and wolfish. "Oh, you didn't need to do anything, Lincoln House," he said.

Spencer turned back around, the back of his neck prickling. He didn't know what to do. There wasn't anything he could do.

The sharp corner of the superglue tube jabbed into his thigh.

Well, maybe there was one thing he could do.

He fiddled with the cap until it unscrewed and fell to the bottom of his pocket. It wouldn't be too hard. And no lasting damage, either. Maybe just a little bit of short term unpleasantness.

Penelope dropped down from the bar. "My arms are going to fall off!" she moaned. "How many was that?"

"One and a half," JJ said. "Come on, Spence, your turn. Do you need a boost?"

"No, I think I got it," he said.

He climbed up on the block and looked up at the bar. Carefully he drew his hand out of his pocket, the tube of glue hidden in his palm, and reached up.

It was a little tough to concentrate on the bar while also keeping the glue from squeezing onto his own fingers, but he managed. It was more important to watch the glue, so he pulled himself up partway, watching it ooze across the bar.

He dropped back down, the tube spent, and he quickly shoved it back in his pocket. "Okay, that was...I think that was one," JJ said. "C'mon, let's go. That was the last one."

He hopped down from the box, grinning. "I did it," he whispered.

"A chin up?"

"No, I-" He glanced back at Neal, seconds away from grabbing the bar. "I got back at them. I think it'll be pretty good?"

Penelope's eyes went wide behind her neon lime glasses. "What did you do?" she whispered.

Neal screamed like a stuck pig. "Ow! Something burned me!" he shrieked.

JJ's jaw dropped. "What did you do?" she asked.

"Nothing that'll cause major damage," he said. "The glue won't completely get him stuck up there."

Neal strugged with the bar, still shrieking, making everyone stare. "What's going on?" the coach said.

Dallas pointed towards them. "Spencer Reid did something to him," he accused.

"Reid!" the coach bellowed. "Get over here!"

His heart dropped. "I didn' isn't anything…" He looked up at JJ. "Do you think I'll be in trouble?"

She squeezed his arm. "I don't know, but it'll be okay," she said. "We'll wait right here."

He walked over slowly. Neal had pried himself off the chin up bar and dropped down to the ground, holding out his hands for the gathered group of kids to stare at them. "Reid, what'd you do?" the coach demanded.

He drew the tube out of his pocket and held it out. " was just a prank," he said, keenly aware of the rest of the ninth graders staring at him. "They've...they've been picking on me, they tied my shoes together and-"

"Detention," the coach said flatly. "This afternoon."

"But I-"

He stopped talking. There was no point. The coach was already writing him up, and Neal and Dallas were glaring at him, and he had the horrible, horrible feeling that his attempt at revenge only made things worse.

"Penelope, this is dumb," Hotch whispered.

"It's only dumb if you make it dumb," she whispered back. She closed her eyes, but she could hear him scooting closer.

"What does this have to do with theatre?" he asked.

"It improves your awareness and your focus so be quiet and let me focus," she hissed.

Admittedly, to someone unfamiliar with theatre, it was a little weird that everyone was lying on the floor on the darkened stage, listening to Harper Hillman talk them through breathing and centering. She'd done this kind of thing before with the community theater she did summer camps with back home, but most likely for Hotch this was...a little odd.

She exhaled slowly through her nose. It had been a long, stressful day, ever since the coach had written Spencer up. The three of them had agreed to not say anything to anybody else- Spencer was desperate to keep his detention a secret from the bigger kids. But it was killing her. The shoelaces thing was bad enough, but the way Spencer talked, those ninth grade football boys had to have spent the past week tormenting him already. But neither she nor JJ could get Spencer to talk. He wouldn't answer them when they tried to get him to open up, he kept rattling on about unrelated things.

"All right, you guys, that's it," Harper said, clapping her hands. "See you next week, we'll be back at our usual time. Oh, and don't forget, they'll be announcing the selection for the fall play soon, so keep your eyes out."

Penelope sat up. "I heard they want to do Noises Off," she said. "I would kill to play Belinda."

"I don't know what any of that means," Hotch said, pushing himself up. "Ugh, I think I dozed off a little bit."

"That happens to the best of us," Penelope said as she stood up, brushing off her shorts. "Are you going to try out for the fall play?"

He shot her a pained look, his arms resting on his bent knees. "Penelope. Look at me," he said. "Do I look like the kind of guy who would audition for a school play?"

"I don't know, you tell me, you're the one who joined theatre club!" she said.

"The answer is no, Penelope," he said. "Tech at the most. And only if-"

His eyes went wide and he scrambled to his feet. "You're staring at Haley again, aren't you?" she said. "Oh, yep, there she is."

"Shut up," he said, his cheeks going red. "It's not like I have any opportunity to spend time with her."

"Isn't she in your physics class?" she said.

"Yeah, but are you kidding me? She doesn't notice me," he said. "Besides, I'm focused on taking notes."

Penelope rolled her eyes. "Of course you are," she said. "And of course she doesn't notice you, she...oh. Oh. Hotch, she's walking over to you."

"Ha, ha, very funny," he said. "You don't have to joke, Penelope, she's-"

"Hey, guys," Haley said, and Hotch jumped. "How's it going?"

"Uh, not bad, I guess, I…" he stammered. He cleared his throat. "That, uh, focus thing was...something."

"Harper loves it, but it makes me fall asleep every time," Haley laughed. "Hey, do you know what happened in the ninth grade gym class today? One of the JV football boys had a nasty prank played on them. He had to go the infirmary and get his hands looked at, he missed practice."

Penelope swallowed hard. "I don't know if I would call it a nasty prank…"

"You're in that class, right?" Haley said. "Do you know what happened? I heard that that little kid did it, the one that skipped like..three grades."

"Four," Hotch said. "Spencer is-" He stopped. "Wait a minute. Spencer sent a kid to the infirmary?" He held his hand out at about waist-height. "Spencer who's that tall. That Spencer?"

"He's like...a little taller than that," Penelope mumbled.

"That's what I heard," Haley said. "What happened?"

They were both staring at her now. "They picked on him first," Penelope offered. "They tied his shoes together and he tripped. And then I...well, JJ and I suggested that he get back at them, and he had superglue in his pocket-"

"Superglue?" Hotch said. "Where'd he get that?"

"No clue," Penelope said. "But the bully wasn't even hurt badly, he didn't even get stuck for very long, which is the real tragedy about the whole situation. And then the coach gave Spencer detention."

"Is that where he is right now?" Hotch asked. Penelope nodded, and he sighed heavily. "Sorry, Haley, I...I've got to go. Spencer's one of the kids on my floor, and he's super young, I need to check on him."

"Yeah, sure," Haley said. "See you next week, Aaron."

She walked away and his mouth drooped. "Another successful conversation with the girl of my dreams," he said. "Come on. Let's get out of here."

He grabbed Penelope by the wrist and dragged her out of the theater. "I'm sorry I didn't say anything," she said. "Spencer didn't want us to tell, and- I'm sorry. They really were picking on him."

"You should have said something," he said tersely.

She followed him in shamed silence. Detention was held in one of the larger lecture halls; it was just a few minutes till five, and they waited in awkward, stiff silence.

"He didn't want us to say anything," Penelope said desperately. Hotch said nothing.

The door opened and students filed out, slow and scowling. Spencer was the last one out, his backpack on his shoulders. He took one look at the welcoming committee and he went pale. "Penelope, you promised," he said. She shrugged helplessly.

"I didn't say anything!" she said. "Things happened. I couldn't stop it."

She waited for Hotch to yell, or scold, or something, but instead he cupped Spencer's chin in his hand. "Where'd this come from?" he asked.

His jawline was swollen, marked in red and purple. "Nothing," he said, but he didn't pull away. "I fell."

"You fell because those idiots tied your shoes together," Penelope said.

"Is that true?" Hotch said. Spencer hesitated, then nodded. "You need to tell us when these things happen."

"It hasn't!" he said. "It''s not a big deal. They're just stupid bullies, it's fine, I can handle it-"

"You don't need to handle anything on your own," Hotch said. "There's no reason for you to feel like you have to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders."

Spencer's lower lip wobbled. "Can we just...can we talk about this tomorrow, please?" he said. "I'm hungry."

Hotch's eyes narrowed. "Tomorrow," he said. "Tomorrow we'll sit down and talk."

Spencer dug his fingers into his backpack straps and strode down the hall, Hotch at his side, still silent. Penelope trailed behind them, the conversation effectively ended, but she didn't feel quite right about it. It was as if they were putting together a puzzle, and everyone had their own piece, but nobody was talking about how the pieces actually fit together.


Spencer dragged himself out of homeroom, hugging his books to his chest. The bruise on his chin still hurt, a slight tender soreness that kept him mindful, but that was fine. It was better than the weight of knowing that Hotch was mad at him.

Dinner had been miserable the night before, quiet and uncomfortable, and he hadn't been able to eat anything. Hotch was angry, he could tell. And he could tell that Penelope and JJ were upset, and that was his fault too. Derek didn't seem to understand, and neither did Alex or Emily. At least Alex seemed to realize something was wrong, asking him quietly if he was feeling all right and offering to get more water or something different to eat. He had told her he was fine, and that he didn't need anything, but she brought him ice wrapped up in a sandwich bag and told him to place it on his jaw, and he almost lost his resolve to not cry right then and there. If she'd hugged him, he probably would have given in.

Hotch didn't speak to him at dinner. He hadn't stuck around to see if he was going to get the cold shoulder at breakfast too; he'd gotten up early and gone straight to homeroom instead, trying to read at his desk but completely unable to focus on the words.

He was supposed to talk to Hotch later, but he didn't want to. Not when he wasn't sure what Hotch would do. Getting yelled at by the coach in front of the entire ninth grade was safer than Hotch being angry with him.

Maybe he'd made a mistake trusting him.

He was almost to his first period class, one of the last stragglers, but a big hand with a bandaged palm grabbed him by the shoulder and yanked him back.

"Aaron, a word?"

Hotch straightened, dropping his books on his desk and straightening his blazer. "Yes, sir?" he said.

Gideon waved him over to his desk. "I wanted to talk about the essay you wrote," he said.

He resisted the urge to fiddle with his sleeve cuffs. "Was there something wrong with it?" he asked. "I researched-"

"No, no, you did very well," Gideon said. He handed him the paper with a bold 97 in red at the top. "You raised some excellent points and argued for them very well."

"Thank you," he said. "I...I'm really enjoying your psychology class, sir. I'm learning a lot."

Gideon tilted his head. "I know you're only a junior, but have you been considering any particular fields after graduation?" he asked.

"Law school," he said promptly. "That's the end goal.

"Law school, law school," Gideon echoed, half to himself. "I could see that. You'd do well." He checked his watch. "Didn't realize how late it was. Go on, take your seat, I should probably teach something."

Hotch went back to his desk, holding his essay carefully, the unaccustomed praise burning warm and pleasant in his chest. When he started at St. Thaddeus in the ninth grade, he had a reputation for two things- never doing his assignments, and losing his temper and getting detention. He'd worked hard to get where he was, all on his own, and it was a relief to hear validation.

Gideon started class, but for a moment Hotch's mind wandered. He needed to talk to Spencer. Last night would have been a bad time- he was too angry to speak calmly. Angry that Spencer was being bullied, angry that Spencer felt he couldn't talk to anyone about it, angry that Spencer got detention and his tormentors didn't get anything.

He had hoped to say something to him at breakfast, but Derek said he'd left early. Maybe he could talk to him at lunch, or maybe take him to the Honeybean after school, let him get a coffee and a snack. That would cheer him up. Maybe he could talk to Alex, see if she could be there too. She was really good with the kid, he might be more likely to open up if she was there.


He sat up, ashamed of daydreaming. "Yes, sir?" he said.

"Can you run down to the supply closet and grab some more of these things?" Gideon said, shaking his whiteboard marker. "Damn thing's dried up."

"Yes, sir," he said.

Gideon tossed him his keyring. "Small blue one," he said. "Do you know where the closet is?"

"Yes, sir," he said. "I'll be right back."

His blazer was ripped. They'd ripped it right down the back, clawing the fabric apart, rending it unrepairable. And he couldn't afford a new one.

"So you like superglue, huh?" Dallas said. He dangled a full tube of it in front of Spencer's face. "You're not the only one who can get your hands on it." He glanced over at Neal, who rolled his eyes. "Pun unintended."

The bigger kid keeping Spencer pinned in place grunted. "When you guys said you wanted to get revenge, I figured you'd like...give him a swirly instead."

"Yeah, and that he'd be an actual ninth grader," the other kid added. "You didn't tell us he was a baby."

"He's a dick," Neal said. "You know he never shuts up in classes? He never fucking shuts up, just blurts out all the answers."

"I'll be quiet," Spencer said. "I won't say anything. I promise. I promise, I won't."

Dallas grinned. "I think I know what we need to glue first," he said. Spencer pressed his lips together. "Open up, Spencer Weed."

He tried to squirm, tried to get away, tried to kick the older boy holding him in place. But it was useless. Dallas unscrewed the top.

The door to the supply closet swung open.

Hotch stared into the supply closet, his brain unable to register what he was seeing. There were four boys in there, all startled, and then he noticed the fifth boy on the floor.

It clicked slowly. The older boy holding Spencer's arms behind his back. The terror in his big brown eyes. The uncapped glue.

"What the fuck are you doing?" he bellowed. He reached for Spencer; the older kid let go of him and Hotch grabbed him by the arm, pulling him tight against his side. "He is ten fucking years old!"

The two younger boys backed away, pale in the dim light. "Dude, we...we didn't mean to…" one of them stammered.

"No, it looks like you fucking meant to!" Hotch shouted.

The lights flipped on. "What is going on here?" the teacher snapped.

"Mr. Gideon sent me down here," Hotch said, holding up the keyring. "I found these...these idiots torturing Spencer."

The teacher glanced around, taking in the scene. "Is he all right?" she asked at last.

"I'm not hurt," Spencer said in a small, shaking voice. He pointed to the bruise on his chin. "This is from yesterday."

"Which they did to him too," Hotch added.

The teacher scanned them. "You four," she said. "Come with me. Mr. Hotchner, can you bring him down to the office when he's had a moment to calm down?"

"Yes," he said. "Absolutely."

He half dragged Spencer back out into the relative safety of the hallway, holding tight to his narrow shoulder. The four older boys walked out with their heads hanging, following the teacher down the hall.

Hotch watched them go, and the second they were gone he knelt down, gripping Spencer's upper arms. "Okay, kiddo, talk to me," he said. "Did they hurt you? Are you okay?"

Spencer stared down the hall as if he was still watching them go, his folded fingers pressed against his lower lip. "They ripped it," he said in a small voice.

"Ripped what?" Hotch asked. He smoothed Spencer's hair out of his eyes. "What's wrong?"

"They ripped my blazer," Spencer said. "They ripped it, and it can't be fixed, and I don't know how I'm gonna get a new one."

"We'll get you a new one," Hotch promised. He moved his hands so he was holding him at his waist, his fingers pressing to his hollow ribs. "Can you hear me? We'll get you a new one, it doesn't matter."

"But they ripped it," he whispered, dazed.

"Spencer," Hotch said firmly. "Things can be replaced. We can't replace you. Do you understand me?" He gave him a little shake. "Do you understand that you're more important than things?"

Spencer turned back towards him and blinked slowly. "Are you mad at me?" he asked sadly.

"No," Hotch said firmly. "Not at all. Not even in the slightest." He pulled Spencer into a tight hug, and after a moment he felt him sag against him, small and limp against his shoulder. "I'm not mad." He pressed his hand to the back of his head. "We'll stay here until you're ready, okay?"

Spencer nodded. He was quiet and still for a long time, his arms wound around Hotch's neck. After a while he pulled back, his eyes dry but red-rimmed, as if he desperately wanted to cry but didn't dare to. "I'm ready," he said, his voice surprisingly steady. "Let's go."

JJ pressed the phone closer to her ear. "Are you serious?" she said.

"Yes!" Penelope said, a little too loud and piercing. "That's why Hotch and Spencer weren't at lunch. They made both of them write a bunch of witness statements."

"What's going to happen?" she asked, glancing back at the field. They hadn't started yet, she still had a little time.

"Not sure yet," Penelope said. "All four of them are in trouble. Like big trouble."

"Is Spencer okay?" JJ asked.

"A little shaken up, I think, but he's not talking about it," Penelope said. "You know how he is. He's talking about everything else under the sun. Alex is beside herself. She gave away her library shift for this afternoon, she and James took him for coffee."

"Well, I hope this means everything is over now," JJ said.

"Jareau!" the team captain called. "Get over here, we're starting."

"Sorry, Pen, I gotta go," she said. "See you later, bye."

She ended the call and dropped her phone in her pocket. It was their first scrimmage, and she was trying to ignore the nervousness threatening to make her nauseous. It was a real kind of game, and there were real people watching in the bleachers.

Not her friends, though. She wasn't ready for that. She hadn't even told them they could come.

The coach and the captain rounded them up for a pep talk and a run through of things to remember before sending them out to the field. Positions were called out, but JJ found herself left behind. "Everybody else, take a seat, you'll be sent in to substitute," the coach said.

So JJ took a seat.

And she sat.

And she sat.

And she sat.

And by the time the scrimmage ended, she never got up.

Frustration boiled under her skin. She didn't force herself to try out for this stupid team to sit on the bench. She didn't sweat to death during practice four times a week to sit on the bench. She didn't do this to do nothing.

"Great work, girls," the coach said. "Now, I've got some notes-"

JJ didn't listen. Her blood roared in her ears and she gritted her teeth. As soon as they were sent back to the locker room, she stepped up to the coach. "Hi," she said. "I have a question."

"Sure," the coach said absently, still busy with paperwork.

"Why didn't I get to play?" she asked.

The coach glanced up. "I didn't need any subs," she said.

"So why didn't I get picked for first string?"

The coach sighed heavily and set down the paperwork. "You're...not quite ready," she said. "You've got talent, or else you wouldn't have made the team. But you're not ready for a game. Soon, though."

"I can do it," she said, squeezing her hands into tight fists, her knuckles going white. "I can. If you just give me a chance-"

"It's the beginning of the season," the coach laughed, and the laugh made her angrier. "Don't stress about it, there's going to be plenty of games and scrimmages coming up. You'll get to play, Jenny, don't worry."

"That's not my name!" she screamed, her fingernails digging into her palm. "You can't call me that!"

The coach's pleasant expression faded. "That's enough," she said. "You're benched for the next match. You behave like that again, you'll be benched longer. Maybe even taken off the team. I don't tolerate temper tantrums."

"Yes, ma'am," she said through her teeth, and she turned and stalked away. The anger began to cool in the back of her neck, but she didn't mind. It was worth it. The coach should have let her play. She shouldn't have left her on the bench.

And no one was allowed to call her Jenny. Only one person was ever permitted to call her that, and she wasn't there anymore.

Emily propped her phone up against her pillow and watched time tick down. She was tired, tired enough to fall asleep, but she needed to stay up just a little bit longer.

Alex closed the door behind her as she walked in, dressed in her pajamas and her long hair brushed smooth down her back. "Hey," she said. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah, why?" Emily said.

"You're usually asleep by now," Alex said as she sat down on her bed. "It's almost midnight and you're usually out like a light by ten-thirty."

"Don't tell anybody that, you'll ruin my reputation," Emily teased, but Alex didn't laugh. She sat up, setting her phone in the middle of the pillow. "I should ask you the same question. You doing okay? I know this whole Spencer thing has you-"

Alex sighed. "That poor baby," she said. "I can't believe he was trying to handle all of this on his own. That's too much pressure for one little kid to bear."

"He seemed okay at dinner," Emily offered.

"Better, at least," Alex said. "He was so quiet this afternoon, it wasn't like him." She tilted her head. "Do you know who was acting weird at dinner today, though? JJ."

"Okay, good, it's not just me," Emily said, pulling her comforter up and bundling it around her arms. "She was acting really fucking weird. She was super late, ate a bowl of mashed potatoes and two bowls of ice cream, and stormed out."

"Maybe she just had a rough time at practice," Alex offered. She ran her fingers through her long hair. "I think it's just been a really rough week. But tomorrow night we'll go to Derek's football game, and then maybe we can do something nice on the weekend to make up for how shitty everything else has been."

"Yeah, maybe," Emily said. She feigned a yawn. "You good to turn lights out? I'm really looking forward to French class tomorrow. We have a test on colors."

Alex laughed. "Bonne nuit, Emily," she said, switching off her lamp.

Emily slid back under the covers, pulling them up to her shoulders, and picked up her phone. She fiddled around, swapping from app to app to app, waiting for the time to roll over. By the time midnight hit she could hear Alex's deep steady breathing, already deep asleep.

She opened her chat app and scrolled around for the correct name. The last time she'd seen him had been a Friday morning; every Friday morning she sent him a message. It was early in the morning his time, just barely seven.

She typed out her message, updating him about what was happening, how things were going. He hadn't messaged her back yet, not in weeks, but she had to try anyways.

Emily sent the message, paused, and then typed out a second message, breaking own of her own private rules.

I miss you, Matthew, she wrote, and after a pause she deleted it. Instead she closed the app, checked to make sure her alarm was set, and tried to make herself go to sleep.

Chapter Text

Mama said
It's uphill for oddities
Stranger crusaders
Ain't ever wannabes
The weird and the novelties
Don't ever change
We wanted everything, wanted everything

--"High Hopes" by Panic! at the Disco

Alex flipped on the lights; Emily groaned and pulled her pillow over her head. "Seriously, Prentiss, I'm leaving for breakfast in like fifteen minutes," she said. "Get up or I'm leaving without you."

"I'm up, I'm up," Emily grumbled.

Alex leaned closer to her mirror, combing her long hair through her fingers. "I really will leave without you," she warned.

Emily dragged herself out of bed. Yesterday's makeup made charcoal smears under her eyes. "I'll be ready in fifteen minutes, I swear," she yawned, grabbing her clothes off the back of her chair on her way out the door.

"We'll see," Alex said. She pulled the sides of her hair back deftly, tying it back with an elastic and looping a dark blue satin ribbon into a bow around it. Admittedly she could probably take her time, there was no need to get to the dining hall the second it opened, but she was worried. Hadn't stopped worrying, really, since the moment she'd gotten the text from Hotch about Spencer.

She'd texted one of the juniors on rotation to come over and finish out her shift at the library; the second they made it over she ran to the main office, catching a stony-faced Hotch and a quiet Spencer on their way out.

For a moment they'd stared at each other, and after taking a split second to weigh her options she'd suddenly held out her hand to Spencer. "I could use some coffee," she'd said brightly. "Want to come with me?"

He stayed silent, but he'd taken her hand, and she privately rejoiced.

Hotch sketched out the details later- what he'd seen, what he'd heard. How Spencer was more focused on the damage done to his school uniform than anything else.

The whole situation was so frustrating. Frustrating that this child had been at school for two weeks, and he already had a target painted on his back. Frustrating that there were so many things he wouldn't- or couldn't- tell them. Frustrating that she couldn't step in and fix this.

Emily banged the door open. "All right, all right, I'm...mostly ready," she said. Her shirt was still untucked and her tie was slung around her neck like a scarf, but her eyeliner was impeccable and her glossy hair was brushed smooth. "See? I told you. Less than fifteen minutes." She paused. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Alex said. She looked Emily up and down. "You're sure you're ready?"

Emily grabbed her blazer and wadded it up into her Kate Spade backpack. "Yeah!" she said. "Come on, I need caffeine or I'm not going to survive today."

"And it's going to be a long day," Alex sad. "We're going to Derek's game tonight."

"Oh, I'm gonna need a lot of caffeine, then."

Hotch rubbed his eyes, the noise of the dining hall blurring in his ears. "Guys, can you it for a second?" he said. Penelope and Derek continued to bicker; JJ scooped up a third cinnamon roll while Spencer had a book propped up on his tray instead of a plate. All things considered, a fairly typical morning, but all he wanted was to have a normal, quiet breakfast for once, without having to worry about the well-being of four children.

Emily slammed down her tray next to him, half out of uniform and her oversized cross earrings jangling in her ears. "Morning, Hotchner," she said.

He sighed. Five children. "Hi, Emily," he said.

"You doing all right?" she asked. "The circles under your eyes make you look like a Scooby Doo villain."

"You're so kind," he deadpanned.

To his surprise, she reached around him and swatted JJ's hand lightly. "Put the spoon down, Jareau, that's enough," she said.

Someone touched his elbow lightly. "She's right, you know, you look like you didn't get any sleep last night," Alex said. "Everything okay?"

He shrugged. He hadn't gotten any sleep the night before, but he also wasn't accustomed to people inquiring about his welfare. "I'll be all right," he said. "Just…" He nodded towards Spencer.

Her lips thinned. "We'll talk about that later," She said. She set two plates down on her tray, then gave Spencer's shoulder a loving little squeeze. "What book are you reading?"

"Out of the Silent Planet," he said, holding it up so she could see the cover.

"Ah, the Cosmic trilogy," she said. She took the book from him, checking the page number before closing the cover, and tucked it under her arm. "You can tell me all about it during breakfast. What do you want?"

Hotch exhaled slowly, a little bit of the stress relaxing out of his tense shoulders. He did need to talk to Alex later- he'd been able to tell her about some of yesterday's incident, but maybe if the three of them could sit Spencer down, they could start unraveling whatever was wrong with the kid.

He reached for a glossy red-and-yellow apple when someone beat him to it. "Sorry," Haley said, laughing. His fingertips brushed against the back of her hand and he jumped back like he'd just touched a hot stove. "Do you want this one? I'm not even sure I want an apple anyway."

"No, no, it's fine," he stammered. "I don't-"

He turned around, and saw her in her cheerleading uniform- navy crop top and skirt trimmed in white, Titans embroidered in gold across the front, her hair tied up with a big bow. The rest of his sentence fell completely out of his brain. She smiled at him and held out the apple. "You had it first," she said.

"You look nice," he blurted out.

She laughed, hiding her face a little, and he wanted to die. Maybe he was dying. "They always have us wear our uniforms to classes for home games," she said. "It's so weird, though. They're always harping on having our ties properly tied and checking to see if our skirts are the right length, and yet here I am."

"Yeah, here you am," he said. "Are. Here you are." He cleared his throat. "Blue's, uh...a good color on you."

If she noticed that he was having a complete and utter meltdown, she didn't let on. "Thanks, it's the whole reason why I wanted to come here," she said.

He frowned. "Really?" he said.

"No!" she laughed. "Are you coming to the game tonight?"

"Uh-huh," he said. "I've got a friend on the football team, I have to go see him play or he'll kill me." He shifted his weight. "And,'ll be nice to see you, too."

She smiled and tossed him the apple; he caught it, nearly upending his tray in the process. "I'll see you tonight, then," she said, and she disappeared back into the crowd.

He watched her walk away, his stomach twisted up pleasantly, until he was poked sharply in the arm. "Hey, can you move?" the student behind him said impatiently. "You're holding up the line."

He jumped, fumbling to keep the apple in his hand, and hurried over to their usual table. They'd left a seat for him between Derek and JJ; the apple rolled across the table and Penelope caught it. "Oh, I shouldn't touch this, Haley touched it," she teased.

"Cut it out, Garcia," he said, the back of his neck heating up.

Emily perked up. "Ooh, who's Haley?" she asked.

"Haley Brooks," Derek grinned. "He's had a crush on her since last year."

The heat crept up to his ears. "I don't have a crush on her!" he protested.

"Really?" JJ said. "You talked to her for like thirty seconds and now look like you're about to throw up. That's usually a good sign of a crush."

"I'm...yeah, maybe I'm just sick," he said. "Can we talk about something else?" Derek opened his mouth. "Not football. We know you're excited about the game." Derek rolled his eyes.

Spencer leaned across the table to reach for another napkin; he was kneeling on his chair instead of sitting and he nearly dragged his tie through his plate. "I've never been to a real sports game before," he said. "I played T-ball when I was little, but...that went as well as you probably expect."

Alex frowned as he dropped back into his chair. "Spencer, you can't wear that," she said. "Your blazer is completely ripped down the back."

"I don't have any other choice," he said glumly. "I can't go without it, but I'll get written up anyway."

"You can wear your cardigan, or your pullover," Penelope suggested.

He leaned his elbows on the table. "I don't have either," he said. "My scholarship covered the basic uniform pieces, but nothing extra."

JJ rummaged in her backpack. "You can borrow mine," she said. "They're unisex and it has the right house on it, nobody will say anything."

Spencer wriggled out of his blazer and draped it over the back of his chair. "Wait, I'm going to go wash my hands, I'm covered in syrup," he said, sliding down to the floor.

"Is it really not fixable?" Hotch asked.

Alex smoothed it out. "I'm not sure," she said. "It's a tear in the fabric, not a popped seam."

"How'd he tear it, anyway?" Derek asked.

Emily shot Hotch a sharp look. "You didn't tell him?" she said.

"He was at football," he said.

"Tell me what?" Derek pressed.

Hotch hesitated. "A couple of...older kids," he said. "They cornered Spencer in a supply closet." He drummed his fingers agains the table. "Short version, I guess...they were planning to do something shitty to him. Would have done something shitty, if I hadn't caught them."

"Somebody would seriously try to hurt a little kid like him?"

"He's an easy target."

"You're sure it wasn't just a silly prank that got out of control?" Derek said. "People do dumb shit to each other all the time."

Hotch glanced around, making sure Spencer wasn't anywhere close by. "They had superglue," he said. "They had him pinned on the floor and they were talking about gluing his mouth shut."

"Jesus," Derek breathed.

"We have to keep an eye out for him, you guys. We can't let anything like this happen to him again."

Spencer ran back to the table. "You're sure no one will know I'm wearing your cardigan?" he asked. "I'd rather not offer any more ammunition for teasing than I already have."

Hotch frowned at Derek, trying to convey a see? I told you so with his expression. Derek gave a slight nod back as JJ helped him into the sweater. "You look fine," she said, buttoning it over Spencer's chest. "And you won't get in trouble this way."

"You'll be fine," Hotch reassured him. "And if anyone gives you any trouble, you come find one of us, okay? Any of us."

"I'll be okay," Spencer said, squinting at the embroidered logo on the cardigan. Hotch wasn't convinced, but he didn't need to start anything at the breakfast table.

Later. They could talk later.

JJ watched the patches of colored light shine on the floor through the stained glass window as the school chaplain droned through a prayer. Chapel always made her a little sleepy, but it was impossible to get comfortable in the straight-backed wooden pews.

Then again, she could see Penelope's head tipping forward in the row ahead of her, so maybe it wasn't completely impossible for everybody.

She glanced across the aisle. Spencer was easy to pick out, his little legs dangling above the floor. Her sweater was a bit too big for him, bunching around his hips and the sleeves almost covering his small hands. He'd grow into it, though. She was going to let him keep it anyway- she didn't wear the cardigan much, and if she wanted a new one that badly all she needed to do was mention it to her mom during their weekly phone call.

The chaplain finished the prayer with a final amen and dismissed them; JJ picked up her backpack and pulled her long braid free from the strap before crossing through traffic to get across the aisle. "Hey, Spence," she said. "Are you ready for gym?"

He wrinkled his nose. "I'm never ready for gym class," he said. He slid off the pew and followed her out of the chapel. "I get that they're trying to make us active, but really, it would be more beneficial to let us go outside and play during recess than forcing us to play kickball and basketball."

"Yeah, I'd definitely like that better too," JJ said. "Derek said there's a playground somewhere on campus. Maybe we can go out there tomorrow or Sunday."

"Aren't your soccer games starting this weekend?" he asked.

She shrugged. "They don't need the whole team for every game," she lied. "I'll probably play next week."

They made the hike to the gym, but she tugged him aside before they went inside. "What's wrong?" he asked.

"If those guys give you a hard time," she said. She bit her lip. She wasn't exactly sure what to say. "Neal and Dallas. If they do anything to you, or say anything...just stay close to me and Penelope, okay?"

"I can take care of myself," he said, shifting his weight uncomfortably.

"I know, I know you can," she reassured him. "But just in case. Stick with us. After what happened yesterday…"

Her voice trailed off, but he gave her a tight little nod. "Thanks, JJ," he said, and he disappeared into the boys' locker room.

She went to her usual spot in the girls' locker room, setting her bag down on the bench and unbuttoning her blazer. "Hey, Jareau," a voice called. "I heard you got benched from your next game."

The noisy locker room quieted for a moment. "It's not a big deal," she said, trying to keep her voice light.

"I heard you yelled at Coach," another girl piped up.

"It was just a misunderstanding," JJ said, digging ruthlessly in her locker for her gym clothes.

"What happened?" the first girl said. "I heard a rumor that-"

JJ grabbed her clothes and retreated to a bathroom stall, closing the latch behind her. She stood there for a moment, her gym uniform hugged to her chest, and breathed deeply until the hot frustration in her chest began to subside.

"Hey, Derek!"

He paused, his tray balanced in his hands. On one side of the dining hall he could see his friends at their usual table, an empty chair reserved for him, but on the other he could see his new teammates, flanked by multiple members of the cheer squad, waving him over.

Maybe, just for today, he'd sit with the team.

"Hey, guys," he said with a grin that he hoped came across as easy and casual, setting his tray down at an empty place. The starstruck feeling in his chest danced around his ribcage, threatening to burst out. "How's it going?"

He'd expected them to be in good moods, looking forward to the first game of the season, but Thornton's face was as red as his hair, and Maclain's mouth was pulled down in a frown. "Did you hear about Willis and Lamb?" he asked.

"No, what happened?" Derek said.

Thornton threw his fork down on his plate with a sharp clatter. "Two of the JV boys asked them to help pull a prank on a kid in their history class," he said. "They got caught and the whole thing got blown out of proportion."

"The JV boys got off with detention, but Willis and Lamb got suspended from tonight's game," Maclain said.

"They're older, so they should have 'known better'," Thornton said in disgust. "We're fucked! They were supposed to be starting tonight."

We've been practicing for two weeks with them as starters," Maclain said. "Now we have to go into our first game with pinch-hitters."

Maclain's girlfriend wrapped her arms around his neck, her platinum blonde hair falling over his shoulder. Derek had never been this close to Alexa Lisbon before, and the starstruck feeling intensified. "You'll be fine, baby," she said. "There's no way you'll let us get beat by a stupid little public school."

"And at least it's a home game," Harper Hillman added. "They're on our turf, they'll be extra nervous."

"Besides, from what I heard, that kid deserved whatever Willis and Lamb did," Thornton added.

The starstruck sense began to fade, the bubbling warmth slowly replaced by a cold tight knot at the pit of his stomach. "When you say 'kid,' you mean Spencer Reid, right?" Derek said. "The little kid?"

"Yeah, he's what...twelve?" Thornton said.

"Ten," Derek said. "Guys, you can't seriously think that a kid as small as him could do anything-"

"Why?" Alexa asked, her green eyes round and innocent as she tilted her head. "He a friend of yours?"

"My, uh….my roommate, actually," Derek said. "He seriously is just a little kid. There's no way he could possibly do anything to anybody on the team."

"I don't know," Maclain said. "Getting two players suspended is pretty serious business."

Derek glanced back at the table. He could see Spencer sitting with the rest of the group, his elbows on the table as he read his book, the sleeves of his sweater pushed up over his skinny elbows. "I'll talk to him," he said. "He won't bother anybody else. I swear. I'll keep an eye on him."

"We'll see," Maclain said. He turned to Alexa. "Babe, have you met Morgan yet? He's only a sophomore and Coach is letting him start today."

Alexa turned towards him, as if she'd just noticed his presence, and smiled. "Hi," she said. "Wow, you must be pretty talented."

The starstruck feeling was back in full force. "I try," he said, and she laughed pleasantly.

"You're so cute," she said. "Good luck tonight, Morgan."

"Thanks," he said, and already the worry that had begun to gather like stormclouds around him faded away.

So far she had changed her outfit three times, and nothing seemed right. A dress? Shorts and a cute top? Her shortalls that had never steered her wrong before? But she should probably dress in school colors, that seemed appropriate, but if she was going to wear navy it was going to throw off the rest of her palette.

"Just pick something, Penelope!" she said aloud, looking in despair at the clothes heaped on the floor and her bed.

At the last second she picked the top from one outfit and the bottom from another, ending up with a navy and white striped short sleeve top and a denim pinafore. Still school spirit-ish, still comfy, and still covered in pockets so she wouldn't need to carry a bag for her phone and her keys.

If she hadn't spent all this time on her outfit, she could have spent more time putting on makeup. Her grandmother threw her hands up in despair every time she wore makeup- you're just a little girl, Penny, there's time for that later!- but she liked it, even if she'd learned primarily from YouTube videos. Maybe she could get Emily to show her how to do her eyeliner.

She tied a navy bandana in her hair as a headband and jammed her feet into a pair of white sneakers on her way out the door. The game hadn't started quite yet, but everyone else had met up earlier, and not only was she going to be late, but she just knew they were going to give her a hard time for being late.

There was a shortcut around there somewhere, though. It was a decent hike to get from the dorms to the football field if she went the usual way, but Dave and James had said something about cutting across an abandoned amphitheater.

She wasn't exactly the greatest at navigation, and they weren't kidding that the place was abandoned, but she found it eventually. The gate was long overgrown with ivy and lamb's ear, but she rattled the rusty latch and it creaked open.

If there was more time she could definitely stop to explore. Walking into the amphitheater was a complete Secret Garden moment; the only thing that could make it better would be the appearance of a charming country lad and his trained robin. "This is what you get for dawdling," she said aloud, the only sound in the cool shaded air, and even though she wanted to stop and enjoy the wild roses and wander around the crumbling concrete steps, she had to go.

The opposite side backed up to a wire fence covered in foliage, but she was able to pull the wires apart far enough to crawl through. She could hear the music from the school marching band now, the football field wasn't too far away.

"Hey!" a voice barked. "What are you doing out here?"

She jumped. "I'm just...uh, I'm sorry, I'm late for the game, I was taking a shortcut," she said. Two men in security team shirts loomed over her and she took a step back. "I'm sorry."

"Where's your ID?" one of them asked.

She fumbled it out of her pocket and held it up. "I really am sorry, I know I shouldn't be back here," she babbled. "It's just that I'm running late, I couldn't decide on my outfit, my friends are already at the game-"

The officer copied her name down and thrust the card back to her. "We'll let you off with a warning," he said. "Students aren't allowed back here."

She took the card back, the edges digging into her palm as she squeezed it too tightly. "I'm sorry," she offered again.

"Get out of here," the other officer said. "We catch you back here again, it'll be more than a warning."

She nodded, unable to speak, and ran.

James shifted around on the silver bleachers, trying to get comfortable, but that was going to be impossible. Even if the benches weren't the worst things in the world to sit on, the early September sun beat down mercilessly, making sweat drip down his neck. Not exactly the kind of situation he was hoping for, not when Alex was sitting next to him, close enough for their thighs to touch. She was wearing a white eyelet sundress and her hair was tied up in a bun with a floral bow, but she wasn't paying attention to the game- or him, for that matter.

"Alex, did you seriously pack books for this?" Dave said.

"Mm-hm," she said. "And I have a backup. Just in case."

"Who brings books to a football game?" Hotch said, scrunching his nose.

Spencer held up his book. "Me," he said.

Dave laughed. "You walked into that one, Hotchner," he said. "Not much of a sports fan, huh, passerotto?"

"Not particularly," he said. He squinted out towards the field. "Besides, I can't see anything."

"Short people problems," Emily teased. She ruffled Spencer's hair. "I'm sure you'll grow eventually."

"Emily, how are you not dying out here?" James asked, raising his voice to be heard over the voice on the PA system announcing the names of the cheerleaders. "I'm sweating to death in a tee shirt and shorts, you look like you're auditioning to play Lydia Deetz."

"Oh, no, I'm sweating to death," Emily said. "But I'm committed to this look. If I show up dressed like Miller, you guys would think there was something wrong with me."

"True," Dave admitted.

Penelope raced into their row, red-faced and out of breath. "Hi! I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I couldn't pick an outfit, I'm sorry, I'm here!" she said.

Hotch leaned back so she could scoot past them and plunk down between him and JJ. "Are you okay?" he asked.

"Yeah!" she said. "Fine! Absolutely fine! Have I missed anything?"

"They're just announcing the cheerleaders, I think," James said.

Emily straightened up. "Somebody point out which one Hotchner likes, I didn't see her this morning!" she said.

"That one," Dave said. "Second row, on the end."

Emily craned her neck. "The little blonde one?" she said. "Oh my god, she's so cute!" She leaned across Alex and James to smack Hotch lightly on the arm. "I'm surprised, Hotchner, you have good taste. She's adorable."

Hotch's face reddened. "I don't know why you guys think I have a crush on her," he said stiffly.

"Oh, I've seen how you act around her in theatre club, you're totally in love with her," Penelope said. "You're almost as bad as James is around-"

"Hey, they're bringing the players out!" James interrupted, his voice rising into a shriek. "Where's Derek, anybody see him?"

Spencer stood up, trying to get a better look. Alex glanced up from her book and tugged him over to sit on her lap. "He's right down there," she said. "See? Number thirty-three."

"I've never seen a football match before," Spencer said. He frowned. "Is it match, or game?"

"Game," JJ said. "Here, I'll tell you it works, I watch football every Sunday with my dad."

"Finally, someone is teaching Spencer something instead of the other way around," Dave teased.

Alex adjusted Spencer on her lap and elbowed James in the ribs in the process. "Sorry, Jamie," she said. "Are you okay?"

"Don't worry about it," he said. "Lean on me all you want."

She smiled up at him. James caught Dave flashing him a thumbs up from the other end of the row and he rolled his eyes.

Dave tapped his foot in frustration. This wasn't fair. Maybe he should have just said that he was going to the bathroom. Announcing that he was going to go to the concession stand was apparently an open invitation for everyone to place their orders so he could bring them snacks. All he wanted was a soda, and now he was waiting on four drinks, nachos, two soft pretzels, and a hot dog with nothing on it (JJ had been pretty clear about that). And a blue slushie, because Spencer had initially said he didn't want anything, but Alex had sent him a text shortly after he left and offered to pay for it herself.

But who were they kidding? They'd all offered to pay him back, but buying a couple snacks and drinks wouldn't even make a dent on his credit card limit. It was fine. The least he could do, probably.

The student worker behind the counter slid the carrier full of drinks over to him. "We're working on the rest," he said.

"Yeah, yeah, it's fine," he said, waving his hand.

There was a considerable line forming at the counter; most likely his massive order was holding everything up. Or maybe it was the pretty girl at the register digging through her purse.

"I'm so sorry, I can't find my wallet," she said. "Oh, god, I might have left it in my car…"

Dave leaned over and held out his credit card. "Don't worry about it," he said.

The girl straightened up. "Oh, you don't have to do that," she said. "I'm sure my wallet's in here somewhere…"

"Really, it's no problem," Dave said. The worker behind the register took his card.

The girl sighed heavily. "You must think I'm an idiot," she said.

"Not at all," he reassured her. "I'd lose my own head if it wasn't attached." She laughed at that, and he grinned at her. "You're from our rival school, I'm guessing."

"What tipped you off?" she said dryly, looking down at her red tee shirt with white letters that spelled out Crievefield High. "I figured I should have a little school spirit for the first game of the season."

The cashier handed him his card and he stuffed it back in his wallet, not even bothering to look at the receipt. "Who do you think is gonna win?" he asked.

"Are you kidding?" she said. "St. Thaddeus always beats us. It would take a miracle for us to win."

"Yeah, a miracle," he said.

The worker behind the counter handed over a drink and a package of Starburst to the girl. "Still waiting on your nachos and your pretzels," he said.

"Thanks," Dave said. He caught the girl looking at him, an amused smile quirking up her lips. "My friends sent me to get food."

"Sure they did," she teased. "What's your venmo? Or your Apple Pay, or-"

"Seriously, don't even worry about it," he said.

She tilted her head. "There's going to be a party in town next week," she said. "Would that be a good way to pay you back, giving you an invite?"

"That depends," he said. "Are you going to be there?"

"Absolutely," she said, balancing her drink carefully as she pulled her phone out of the back pocket of her denim shorts. "Give me your number."

He recited it for her. "You want a name to go with that?" he asked.

"Yeah, maybe," she said.

"David," he said. "David Rossi."

"I like that," she said as she typed it in. She glanced up at him. "I'll text you when I know more details."

"Thanks," he said, and she offered him a little wave as she walked away. "Hey, do I get to know your name?"

She disappeared into the crowd, and he scowled until his phone buzzed in his hand.

Hayden :)

"You doing okay, Em?" James asked.

She rested her chin in her hands. "I've seen so many TV shows and movies with American high school sporting events, and I feel cheated," she said. "Glee and Riverdale have lied to me."

"You want me to explain how it works again?" JJ offered.

"No, no, I don't think that's gonna make a difference," she said. She jabbed her thumb towards Alex and Spencer. "These two had the right idea bringing books along."

"Well, if Derek asks about it later, because I'm sure he will, tell him you had a great time," Hotch said. "All you need to know for now is that it's neck and neck."

"Which is honestly a little weird," James said. "We never have this much trouble beating Crievefield."

Dave walked up the steps to their row, his arms laden down. "Okay, somebody help me with these," he complained. Penelope quickly jumped up. "If I forgot anything, you get to go get it yourself."

"Okay, a pretzel for Hotch, a pretzel for Alex, a hot dog with nothing on it for JJ-"

"Thank goodness," JJ said, checking it for signs of rogue ketchup.

"-the nachos are for me, and...I'm guess this is for Spencer," Penelope said.

Spencer glanced up from his book and his eyes lit up. "That's for me?" he said.

"Yeah, don't spill it," Dave said, handing over the giant blue slushie.

Spencer set the book down on the bench and held it reverently with both hands. "I don't...I don't have the money for this though," he objected quietly.

He was still sitting on Alex's lap, and she gave him a little squeeze. "Don't worry about it," she said.

Emily accepted the cup that Dave handed her. The Sprite was cold and bit at her throat as she took a sip, bubbles popping in her mouth. The sun was beginning to set, turning the sky vivid hot pink, but it was still way too hot and humid.

She pulled out her phone and checked her chat app as Penelope peppered JJ with questions about how football worked. Last night's message was still unread. Just like all of the others.

Maybe she should sneak out for a smoke and text him again.

Maybe it was stupid of her to keep trying to message him. Maybe she should give up. Maybe he just didn't want to talk to her anymore.

She hadn't realized her cup was slipping from her hand until James caught it. "Hey, are you okay?" he asked.

"Yeah, sorry, I just...zoned out for a second there," she said. She hastily stowed her phone back in her pocket. Now wasn't the time to wallow in feelings that she should have given up over the summer, after she was kicked out of her last school, after she spent the summer moping around in her bedroom.

Spencer pushed his long hair out of his eyes. "Hey, Emily?" he said. "Do you have another hair tie?"

"Yeah, come here, babe," she said. He slid off Alex's lap and set his cup down carefully before climbing over to her. She raked her fingers through his silky hair, still smelling faintly like baby shampoo, and drew it up into a ponytail.

"You might need a haircut soon," Hotch said. "When's the last time you had one?"

He scrunched up his face. "Two years ago," he said. "Give or take a few weeks."

Emily tied off his ponytail with a hair tie off her wrist. "Così bello," she said, and he smiled, his mouth stained blue from his slushie. She smiled back. It wouldn't do her any good to dwell on the past.

Spencer leaned his head back against Alex's shoulder without thinking. His book was long finished, and it was way too dark to read anyway. The sugar high from his slushie had worn off, and now he was drowsy and comfortable, almost on the verge of dozing off even with the chaotic noise of the football game.

Maybe he did doze off, because the next thing he realized the noises of the football game had gone silent, replaced with a thousand echoing conversations. "Is it over?" he yawned.

"Yeah, it's over," Alex said. "We won't tell Derek you fell asleep."

He slid down from her lap and picked up his book. "Did we win?" he asked.

"Nope," James said.

"First time in at least five years that St. Thaddeus lost their first game of the season," Dave added. "People are gonna be pissed about this."

Hotch yawned. "It's just football," he said. "C'mon, let's go. I want to sleep."

Spencer followed the bigger kids out of the bleachers, hugging his book sleepily to his chest. He was ready to sleep too. His bed at school was the most comfortable one he'd ever slept on, even if he tended to get cold at night with just the one blanket.

It was dark now, the way back to the dorms lit by warm little pathlights, and the sidewalks were clogged with other students heading to their rooms, complaining loudly about the outcome of the game. Spencer tripped over his broken shoelaces, his book fluttering from his hands and his knee striking the ground hard. "Wait for me, guys!" he called, fumbling to retie his shoe. He snatched his book and scrambled to his feet. "Wait for-"

He froze.

He didn't recognize the boys standing in front of him, but it didn't take a genius to scan their freshly showered hair and matching navy tee shirts and realize they were part of the football team.

"Yeah, that's him," one of them said. "The little kid that got Willis and Lamb suspended from playing."

The biggest of the boys loomed over him. "If they'd played tonight, we wouldn't have lost," he said. Spencer took a step back. "Now we're starting the season with a loss on our record. And we never lose. So you know what that means, kid?"

Spencer's mouth went dry. "No," he said in a small voice.

"It means you'd better watch your back, you little shit."

Spencer ran. His torn up shoes caught at the cobblestone walkway, and his lungs seized up, but he ran until he caught sight of Alex's white dress, easy to spot in the moonlight. He threw himself into the middle of the group, hiding between Hotch and James. "Hey, where'd you come from?" Hotch asked.

His heart beat staccato on his ribs. "Stopped to tie my shoe," he gasped.

If they noticed he was out of breath, they didn't mention it, keeping up their conversations. He clutched his book, glancing back every so often to see if he was being followed. He wasn't sure.

"All right, goodnight, everybody," Dave said as they reached Lincoln House. "I gotta drive back home now."

"I'll walk you girls over to Roosevelt," James offered.

Alex touched Spencer's shoulder lightly. "See if you can sleep off that sugar," she teased, but impulsively he threw his arms around her waist and buried his face in her stomach. She paused. "Spencer? Are you okay?"

"Uh-huh," he said. She hugged him back, warm and secure. He took a step back and smiled up at her. "I'm fine."

She cupped his chin in her hand and kissed his cheek. "Go get some sleep," she said.

He nodded and followed Hotch and the girls inside, saying his goodnights to JJ and Penelope as they passed their floor. Hotch told him an absent goodnight too, patting his back before disappearing into his room.

Spencer got ready for bed, brushing his teeth and stripping down to his tee shirt and boxer briefs to sleep. He left his hair pulled back in the ponytail, though, and when he crawled into bed and pulled his blanket up to his shoulders he had every intention of going right to sleep.

But he couldn't sleep. And he couldn't even muster up the energy and willpower to pick up a book.

It was late when Derek got back, dumping his bag on the floor by his bed. "You still up?" he said. "I figured you'd be asleep by now."

"No," Spencer said quietly.

He watched him get ready for bed, curled up into his single pillow, but wasn't until Derek was just about to turn off the lights that he had the courage to ask his question out loud.

"Are you mad at me?"

Derek paused. "Why would I be mad at you?" he asked, genuinely perplexed.

"Hotch got those football kids in trouble, and they couldn't play in the game tonight, and you lost," Spencer said.

"That's not your fault, pretty boy," Derek said. "Actions have consequences, and what they did was wrong. And besides...sometimes teams just lose." He smiled at Spencer. "Besides, we got a whole season to play. We'll do fine. Understand?"

"Uh-huh," Spencer said.

Derek reached for the lightswitch, then paused. He crossed over to the closet and pulled down the ivory satin-edged blanket he'd borrowed during movie night. "Here," he said, tossing it to Spencer. "They've got the AC cranked up way too high in here, you're gonna freeze."

"Thank you," Spencer said, startled. Derek turned off the lights, and he laid down, arranging the blanket around himself. "Goodnight."

"Goodnight, pretty boy."

He fell asleep almost immediately, but he had the dream again, and he woke up shaking, a scream dying in his throat. No matter how exhaustion pulled at him, he couldn't bear to close his eyes, so he forced himself to stay awake until dawn began to peek into the room, clutching the blanket in his hands.

Chapter Text

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. 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 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 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. " 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."