He forgot how to say I love you.
He didn’t do it on purpose. It just….happened.
“I love you,” he said to his father when he was tucked into bed at night.
“I love you,” he said to his mother when he came home from school.
His father stopped tucking him in, and stopped coming home, and after a while he never came home again.
His mother loved him, but sometimes she forgot who he was.
And he was too busy holding things together, sneaking out to the payphone with his mother’s credit card to pay the late power bill and buying groceries that he was too small to cook and working through classes with children twice his size.
And after a while, he forgot how to say it.
And then he went to school, and things changed.
He let Penelope borrow a pencil when she was trying to get her homework, and her last pencil broke, and she didn’t have a sharpener. All he did was hand her one of his. “Oh, I just love you!” she said, and he blinked in confusion, because it was just a pencil.
He said something funny without realizing it was funny, and Derek threw his head back and laughed, and tossed his arm around his skinny shoulders. “Aw, I love you, man,” he said. “You’re hilarious.” And he didn’t understand still, but he smiled because he’d done something right.
He was cornered by the bullies, because even here he was a target for kids bigger and older than him- but not smarter, never smarter, but smart could only take him so far. And JJ darted in between, pushing him behind her. “Pick on someone your own size,” she snarled, and when they left she knelt down, checking him for bruises and scrapes.
“Are you all right?” she asked anxiously. “They shouldn’t have done that, that’s not okay.”
“I’m fine,” he said, bewildered, because no one had come to his rescue before. But she took his hand and marched him away, anger cooling from red to pink in her cheeks, and he wondered why she decided to do that.
He got caught in the rain, hesitating behind the bigger kids as they watched the rain fall in gray sheets and the white sting of lightning shoot through the clouds, and eventually they made a break for it, trying to dodge the storm but losing the battle. They made it to the main building of the school, rainwater dripping from their clothes, and Emily ran her hands through his wet hair. “Shit, babe, you look like a drowned rat!” she laughed, and as she helped him wring out his blazer he thought he knew what she meant.
He couldn’t sleep, and he was stressed, and he wasn’t used to handling it yet like he was back home. He didn’t know how bad it was until a cup of water was pressed into his hand, and he looked up to see James. “You want to talk about it?” he asked, and he did, he did want to talk about it, and the words tumbled out like dropped marbles, and James let him speak until he was tired, listening intently, his body angled towards him and his eyes focused, and that was the kind of language he could translate into I want to hear you.
He was at David’s house- and he was never invited to people’s houses, ever, this was a first- and David was cooking dinner for everyone, and joy buzzed in his chest like honeybees, and that honeybee joy spilled out of him in facts and statistics in a steady stream of actually actually actually, and David didn’t stop him. “You know so much, I’d swear you’re Italian too, passerotto,” he said.
He wrinkled his nose, confused, and Emily tugged him to sit down on the barstool before he tipped over. “It means little sparrow, it’s a good thing,” she explained.
“It’s what we call our children,” David said, and he cupped his face in his hands and kissed both cheeks, and he beamed.
He was burning, fever crawling under his skin and twisting in his belly, and he wanted to lie down and sleep, but he couldn’t, he had other things to do and other things to worry about, he had grades that needed to stay impeccable in order to keep him in this school, he could sleep later. But Alex caught him by the shoulder, frowning, and pressed her hand against his forehead.
“You’re burning up,” she said, and he leaned into her cool hand, his eyes closing.
“I’m okay,” he mumbled, but she took him back to his room and tucked him into bed like the child that he was, and when he woke up calling for his mother that even in his haze he knew couldn’t answer, she held him on her lap and rocked him while he cried, and even though he couldn’t find words right then, he knew safe.
He didn’t know what to make of Hotch. There was a solemnity about him, an adultness that weighed heavy on his shoulders in an unspoken burden. But Hotch steered him quietly, unseen- prying his book from his hand when he stayed up late reading, scooping vegetables on his plate at dinner, replacing his hand-me-down clothes with new ones.
Hotch caught him in frustrated tears once, rolling off his cheeks in fat drops and plopping onto his homework, because a ten-year-old genius is still a ten-year-old, but he hated that he was crying, hated that he was acting like a baby, hated that he couldn’t stop.
But Hotch smeared his tears with his thumb, his dark eyes thoughtful. “You don’t have to do everything on your own, you know,” he said quietly.
“I have to,” he said, a sob catching in his throat like a trapped bird, suffocating him. “I always have to.”
Hotch shook his head. “No, you don’t,” he said. “You can rely on other people. You don’t have to be strong all the time.”
“I have to,” he repeated. “I have to, I have to.”
Hotch stroked his hair back from his forehead. “We’re not going anywhere,” he said, and he spoke with a firm resolve that said I have stood where you stand. “Let’s take a break from the homework, okay? It’ll still be here in an hour.”
He had forgotten how to say I love you. But he had to learn how to hear it first before he could say it back, and he had to say it his own ways.
He knew Penelope was upset, even though objectively he knew it was just a television show, and even if it was canceled she could always watch the episodes. But her mascara was running down her cheeks in dark rivulets as she cried at the dinner table, and he hated to see her so sad, so he got her ice cream, a bowl of vanilla soft serve covered in a million colors of sprinkles, and she smiled for the first time all day. “Thank you, cherub,” she said, squeezing his hand, and he smiled back, pleased.
He figured out how to come up with things to make Derek laugh. No one had ever thought he was funny before, but Derek did, and his laughter was genuine and warm and bubbling, and the warmth spread to him too.
He learned to write back when JJ left him notes in her tidy cursive, scrawling back things that were important and things that weren’t on intricately folded squares of notebook paper, and he looked forward to hearing what she was saying, and he knew she looked forward to hearing what he said too.
He still shied away from bullies, and once in a crowded hallway he ducked behind Emily, grabbing hold of her jacket. She looked down at him with a frown, then followed his gaze at the boys looking for him, and she wrapped her arm tightly around his shoulders.
“Stick with me, passerotto,” she said, and he could hear the pride and the concern in her voice, and his fear subsided.
He got stuck on geometric proofs after a long day and a sleepless night, the shapes and numbers and words blurring in his vision, and he crumpled up the page, splintering the edges into his fingers. But after a moment he smoothed it back, the creaselines making faded scars and softening the paper, and carried it to James.
“Can you take a look at this?” he asked.
James set his book aside, marking the page. “Absolutely,” he said, leaning close to get a better look. “Geometry? Oh, yeah, that’s the worst. Let’s make a little sense out of it.”
And James’s calm voice soothed his ruffled feathers and shone a little clarity like a break in the clouds on a dark day, and of course, it all made sense now, and his frustration melted.
He joined the chess club, and he met new people, but he was proudest when David sat down to play with him. David was all impulse and passion and risky choices that didn’t always pay off, but he was still good, though rarely good enough to beat him. He beat most kids, even the oldest kids, too full of youthful joy to hide his light and blend in.
“Where’d you find him, Rossi?” another senior complained, smarting at another loss to the hands of a child too small for his feet touch the floor when he sat at the chessboard.
“We found him as a baby on the steps of St. Thaddeus,” David laughed, but he hugged him around his shoulders and ruffled his hair and basked in his glow like a proud older brother.
He spent a lot of time in the library. It was quiet and safe there, warm lamplight casting comfortable shadows as he sprawled on the floor with a book. Alex walked up and down the aisles as she shelved books, humming rock’n’roll under her breath like hymns in a cathedral, and he was content. Sometimes she took a break to sit down in one of the armchairs with a book of her own, and sometimes he crawled into her lap, seeking comfort, and she gave it freely, making space for him in her arms without questions.
He found safety in his circle, and the anchor of his circle was Hotch. Without fail he stood by him, catching the little things that used to slip through the cracks. He never went to bed hungry. He never went outside in the cold without a coat. He never stayed awake worrying if the electricity might get shut off again. The ground had stopped tilting beneath him.
He sat in the common room, kneeling on the chair as he leaned on the table to finish his essay, filling the page with his messy handwriting as rain tapped on the window. JJ sat next to him, working on the same essay for the same class, while Penelope’s paper had become a page of swirls and flowers. Derek was stretching on the floor, complaining happily about how difficult his last game had been. James and David bickered good-naturedly over a chessboard; Alex read through a thick novel in French as Emily, bored, wove lazy braids in her long red hair. Hotch half dozed on the couch, arms crossed over his chest, one side of his headphones tilted off his ear so he could still hear what was going on.
Spencer looked at his paper and frowned. “Hey, Dad?” he said.
Hotch didn’t open his eyes. “Yeah?” he said sleepily.
“Tomorrow’s Thursday, right?”
His eyes were still closed. “Yeah, tomorrow’s Thursday, kid,” he said. “You still have another day to get that essay done.”
Spencer leaned back. “That’s what I thought,” he said. “Thanks.”
JJ tapped her pen against her lower lip. “Did Spence just call Hotch ‘dad’?” she said, grinning.
“And did Hotch just answer to it?” Emily said.
Spencer smiled as he went back to his essay. He still didn’t know exactly how to say I love you, but he was fairly certain they all understood him.