The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease for ever to be able to do it.
-- J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan
Emily Prentiss read Peter Pan in London. She loved London. She loved rainy days and the rolling stretches of St. John’s Wood and the nanny who told her story after story - hundreds of Dalmatians and magical wardrobes and forgotten princesses all dancing in her head till she looked around every corner, into every room, and hoped for adventure. Mostly she found adults, sitting and talking and watching. Mostly watching.
On her eighth birthday, Emily was alone. Her parents had a diplomatic engagement of “terrible importance,” Emily’s mother said, glittering in the doorway, Emily’s father tall and silent behind her. “We’re sorry,” her mother said. “We’ll go somewhere wonderful tomorrow.”
Emily didn’t mention that tomorrow wasn’t her birthday. (Even now, she still doesn’t mention it. Some battles even her eight-year-old self had known not to fight.)
Her mother kissed the air near her cheek. Her father stayed in the hall. They left, and Nanny Mabel came in.
“I have a present for you,” she said, and pulled out a small, wrapped rectangle from behind her back.
Emily opened it and found a book, a boy on its cover standing over a man with a hook and a man with a headdress. It smelled a little dusty. She thought it must be very old.
“It was mine, from my gran,” Mabel said. “It was hers before me.”
Emily looked up. “It’s mine?” she asked.
Mabel smiled. “It’s yours. I haven’t told you this one yet. And there’s so much to tell.”
“Will you read it?” Emily knew it seemed babyish. But some stories were better told aloud.
“Of course,” said Mabel. And she did. And eventually, she read, “Stars are beautiful, but they may not take an active part in anything, they must just look on for ever. It is a punishment put on them for something they did so long ago that no star now knows what it was. So the older ones have become glassy-eyed and seldom speak (winking is the star language), but the little ones still wonder.”
Emily thought about her mother, shining, and her father, silent, and all the grown-ups, always watching. “I won’t ever be an old star,” she promised herself.
Then Emily grew older - not up, because she'd grown up long ago. In Rome for certain, if not before - in Rome, scared and pregnant, alone but for Matthew, and she thinks growing up might have been the death of him.
She grew older and older, and she learned that there were people who steal kisses from those that refuse to give them, that some people were very like fairies, with no room for more than one emotion at a time, and that there were darker, more sinister people in the world than Captain James Hook and his crew. She grew older, until at last she was the Emily Prentiss who worked at the BAU. There, she fought pirates with her own band of lost children.
She fought pirates, and she never forgot about the stars, and then one day, she began to suspect that she might not only be growing older - she might be growing old.
The suspicion started when she was sitting in a tiny church, segregated with the women, her head down and her voice silenced, listening to the latest unsub spew out poison. She knew, even then, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he was the unsub who had killed the four girls. She knew they'd pin it on him - it was just a question of when. She knew it would stick: he would rant and rave and they would put him away forever.
Even knowing all that, she didn't feel much of anything beyond the dregs of a weary satisfaction.
There would be another like him. And another. And like the stars over Neverland, she'd watch and watch and nothing she'd ever do would make the pattern change. She suspected, then, she had grown glassy-eyed and old.
When Doyle reappeared, that suspicion became acknowledged fact. She knew where it was going to end. She didn't wonder. She didn't have to. She knew all she could hope for was to keep her team from becoming more collateral damage. When she saw Seaver and Rossi on the computer screen, she thought she’d even failed at that. By the time she showed Doyle where she’d killed his son - or where Doyle thought she’d killed his son, and she clung to the fact that the boy was alive and safe and thriving, because of her choices - by the time they were in that warehouse, Emily knew the likelihood of surviving was slim. Walking in, Doyle breathing down her neck, she gave up on hope. “To die will be an awfully big adventure,” she told herself, and there was no wonder in her.
Derek Morgan didn’t read Peter Pan till he was fifteen. He’d been laid up with a bad sprain, and he didn’t mind at all, because that meant no one expected him at the youth center. He had two weeks free and clear, and not even Mr. Buford’s worried comments about college scouts and the things Derek could do - "things that wouldn’t strain that ankle" - that would help him get back in the game faster - not even that could sway Derek's mother.
“If he doesn’t heal right, he might do it again, only worse, and then he might not have the chance at all,” she’d said, and hung up the phone.
Derek tried to look disappointed, because if he didn’t, his mom would ask questions, and he couldn’t answer questions. Couldn’t tell her. Didn’t want to tell her, not when she was already worried about the doctor’s bill and Sarah’s growth spurt and Desiree’s glasses. (He still doesn’t regret keeping silent then. He still agrees with his younger self. He’d do the same thing again. But he’d have told her sooner. Buford would’ve gone away sooner. That much, Derek regrets. That, and the shame. That isn’t going anywhere - but telling his mother sooner wouldn’t have changed a damn thing about it.)
But it was nice to be home. Even if, five days later, he was bored out of his mind. Everyone else was at practice, and he was at home. Bored.
Mrs. Angeledes, down the hall, took pity on him. When he opened the door, she was standing there with a plate of cookies and a grocery sack full of books. “Here, young man,” she said, and bustled past, nearly knocking him off his crutches. She dropped the plate on the table and the books by the sofa and stood there, waiting, her glasses halfway down her nose and her hair fluffed out around her head like a halo, white and curly. “If I know a teenage boy, you’re about four-fifths out of be-good and your mama works too hard for you to be dreaming up more mischief.”
He grinned at her. Mrs. Angeledes had been warning him about his be-good since he was eleven.
She smiled back. “My son liked these. Maybe you should read them.”
“Read them?” he blinked. “All of them?”
“You got so many muscles your brain stopped working?” She put her hands on her hips. “Yes, all of them. Maybe there’s more cookies for someone who manages to read all of them.”
They were good cookies. He said so and she laughed on her way out the door. Derek picked up the one on the top of the stack and started to read.
Eventually, he read, “‘I taught you to fight and to fly. What more could there be?’” and he had to stop, set the book down.
“What more could there be? Not much,” he thought to himself. He’d get out of there. He'd learn to fight and then he'd fly, fly, fly, and he'd only come home when his mom couldn’t stand it. But by then he’d know how to fight - and not fist fighting, but fighting with everything he had, heart and soul - and he wouldn’t ever be caught again. No one would be able to hurt him then. He’d always be able to fight, and he'd always be able to fly.
He left. He learned. He flew. And he fought the good fight, over and over and over, and eventually he realized he was fighting alongside allies, alongside friends, and he didn't have to fly away, not anymore.
Only now the EMTs are too damn slow, and Emily’s hand on his isn’t tight enough, and he can’t fight this. She wouldn’t let him - wouldn’t let them - and now she’s slipping away no matter how hard he holds on. He can’t fight this, and if he can’t fight, then he doesn’t know what he can do. Someone shoves him away and Prentiss is shifted to a stretcher and all he can think, her blood on his hands, is that he can’t fight and he’s forgotten how to fly, and he doesn’t know what he’s got left after that.
He doesn’t know what he thinks when she walks into that room, so much later. There’s too much to process and too much to do. He can’t put a name to everything he’s thinking. Morgan’s smart enough to know that at least part of it is gratitude, and he lets that corner of his heart take wing.
Penelope Garcia can't remember the first time she read Peter Pan, but she never liked Wendy. She told her mother so one night. She was twelve, and it had never occurred to her that she was too old to read aloud with her mother at night before she went to sleep. Even at twelve, Penelope Garcia did exactly as she pleased, if she thought it was the right thing to do - especially if she thought it was fun.
They were curled up in bed, her mother’s head against hers, the book open before them, even though she had read it so many times she could practically quote it aloud. Penelope at twelve liked Peter. (Penelope, much older, still isn't big on Wendy, but she wishes she could tell her younger self that sometimes Peter hides in unexpected places, and that she sees something of his grin in a man named Kevin, and other men named Derek and Spencer, and certainly in one named David Rossi, and maybe, when the light is just so, in one named Aaron Hotchner.)
Her mother laughed and confessed that really, she was most fond of the mermaids. She flipped through the pages till she found what she was looking for: "He would come up with mermaid scales still sticking to him, and yet not be able to to say for certain what had been happening. It was really rather irritating to children who had never seen a mermaid,” her mother read.
“Have you seen one?” Penelope asked.
”I hope to,” her mother said.
”I’m going to,” Penelope said. “One day.”
”I believe you,” her mother said.
Penelope remembered that night, reading with her mother, when they called and told her about the car crash. She wondered who would believe her now. And eventually, she learned to believe for herself - or rather, learned again, for she had believed, once upon a time, before. She learned to believe for herself, and she never gave up on mermaids, and eventually found people who loved her because she kept looking for them.
And now, sitting next to Derek, her head reeling and her heart breaking, Penelope thinks she’d give up all the mermaids in the world if Emily would walk through that door and laugh.
Months later, Prentiss does just that.
Smiling so hugely she thinks her face might break, Penelope thinks she’ll keep looking for mermaids after all.
Dave Rossi never read Peter Pan. He wasn’t much of a reader as a kid. Not when there were other things to do. He never saw the movie either - he wasn’t really old enough when it came out, and musicals weren’t really his thing, even if he and Caroline could’ve afforded a ticket beyond once in a blue moon. (This is still true, even now, when he can afford the opera and galas and tickets to any show he wants, assuming the phone doesn’t ring and call him to a case halfway through. It might be a failing. He’s okay with that.)
So he sort of knew the idea, sure, but he didn’t really feel like he was missing anything. Then Caroline got a copy of the book at the baby shower.
She came home laden with gifts - metaphorically, since in fact, her mother and his own had marched him down to the curb and promptly loaded him down, while Caroline hoisted herself up the stairs.
“I do not hoist,” she said archly, later that night, sitting up on the bed while she watched him unpack.
“Of course not.” He grinned, trying not to think about how tiny the christening dress was in his big hands. He picked up the book next, and was briskly informed that a father’s job was to read to his kid. Dave didn’t think he’d mind.
He never had the chance to find out.
It wasn’t till Caroline was packed and gone that he found the book again. It hadn’t been included, he supposed, in the silent, horrible purge - hadn't been evacuated with the shoes and the blankets and the toys and the christening gown.
He sat down on the couch, opened it and read. He didn’t have anything better to do.
“‘Pan, who and what art thou?’” Rossi read. “‘I'm youth, I'm joy,’ Peter answered at a venture, ‘I'm a little bird that has broken out of the egg.’”
He put the book down, scrubbed at his eyes, and never picked it up again.
Dave would be lying if he said he’d never found joy after that. Life is too long, and he’s not that much of a fool to let a good thing pass by, and sometimes, even when he is a fool, the good things wrap him up and carry him along with them until he realizes how good a team they really are, and that he's part of it. But now, when JJ walks in, he knows that treacherous moment of hope, breaking free just for a moment, until JJ's face crumbles and her voice breaks and Dave is back in his kitchen, all those years ago, putting the book down again, feeling like he hadn't thought he could again, because something good has been broken. Because Emily Prentiss is dead.
Later, seeing her alive, thin and tired but indisputably not dead, Dave finally understands just what it was that Peter was crowing about.
Spencer Reid read Peter Pan when he was nine years old behind a closed door while his mother shouted at nothing and the heat of an August afternoon baked the asphalt outside. It was a short book. He read it twice. It was the only one he hadn’t read before, borrowed from a well-meaning neighbor.
“Pablum,” his mother had said dismissively, when he brought it home, and he’d flushed. She’d read him something by Eliot then, and they’d had dinner and gone to bed, and she’d said nothing more about it. That had been a week ago, and the intervening seven days had been the kind of days he didn’t talk about, not even at nine, because he knew if he did, he wouldn’t be able to take care of her any more. They wouldn’t let him.
Sitting there, alone, Spencer wanted something new, something different, and Peter Pan was new. (When he’s older, he’ll be able to say, “I wanted to be somewhere else,” but that’s no easier to say at twenty-nine than it is at nine, not really, even if by then he has the words to articulate it.)
"’If you believe,’” Spencer read, "’clap your hands; don't let Tink die.’ Many clapped. Some didn't. A few beasts hissed.”
Spencer didn’t clap. But he didn’t hiss. And he never would say he didn’t believe in fairies. Not out loud. And eventually he did find somewhere else, somewhere he didn't want to leave, and where he could talk about it if - but only if he wanted to.
Now, sitting in a too-bright hospital room, with his team around him - all of them but one - Spencer thinks about how white Emily’s face was as the EMTs hustled her past. In the too-quiet of his own head, he thinks, “I do believe in fairies,” and slowly, silently, when no one is watching, puts his palms together, once, twice, three times.
Months later - months and heartache and anger and forgiveness later - it occurs to him that it worked after all. He raises his head and grins at Prentiss across the bullpen. She grins back. “I do, do,” Reid thinks, and goes back to work.
Jennifer Jareau read Peter Pan when she was ten, with her sister, one August where time flowed like molasses. They were up on her grandparents’ farm, with no friends and with chores, but also with Nana G and Pop and Arthur, the collie, and they read it to each other when they finished working for the day, lying in the haystacks.
Allie hadn’t wanted to go, JJ knew. Allie had begged and pleaded and sulked all the way out to the farm, but when their parents drove away and Nana G clucked over them and they took their bags up to their room, Allie just sighed and laid back on the bed. “Well, squirt?” she asked. “What’re we going to do?”
JJ grinned. “Everything!”
“All at once,” Allie said back, and JJ knew, one hundred percent, that no matter how old they got, it would be her and Allie and everything all at once, no matter that Allie was five years older, no matter how quiet Allie seemed sometimes when it was the two of them alone. (JJ now, remembering, tells her younger self over and over and over that she couldn’t have known, couldn’t have seen what the adults had missed. Mostly, she believes it. Mostly.)
And today was Allie’s turn, and she’d taken to it with gusto. But they’d had a lot of chores and it was hot, and the hay was kind of comfortable once it stopped prickling, and JJ was drowsy, despite Allie’s reading. And then Allie read, ““Never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.”
“She sounds so sad,” JJ thought, and then drifted into sleep.
Ten months later, Allie had killed herself. She never said goodbye. JJ never forgot.
JJ stands in front of her team and lets her voice crack. She lets the tears stand in her eyes, and they’re real, no matter what she’s lying about. She thinks of Emily, still and silent and barely breathing, stable in theory but with so much still unknown, and she thinks, “goodbye means going away.” She understands that now. But none of them are going to forget. Remembering is what they do.
Still, she never tells Emily goodbye. Not in the hospital, not in Paris. They will find Doyle. Emily will come back.
They do. Emily does. Later, watching Prentiss walk into the BAU, it's a triumph. And when Doyle’s dead, JJ thinks of him, pictures him, and thinks viciously, “goodbye.” Peter Pan, she thinks, would approve.
Aaron Hotchner read Peter Pan so often the pages began to fall out. He read it under the covers, by flashlight. He read it in the back seat of the car. He read it at the beach and in the mountains and during quiet time at school. He kept it under his mattress.
His father threw it out.
The second copy, he kept in the woods, in a metal coffee can wrapped in wax paper, and he read it whenever he could slip away, careful never to stay away too long. He always left just when it was getting good. But Hook wasn’t real, not really real. Other things were. His father was. (Hotch has never forgotten the importance of reality over fiction. He spends his days chasing people who forget it. But Jack makes up stories and has an invisible friend and Hotch is terribly, fiercely glad.)
And then there was the day his father came home early.
“It was then that Hook bit him,” Aaron read, curled up against a tree, quiet all around. “Not the pain of this but its unfairness was what dazed Peter. It made him quite helpless. He could only stare, horrified. Every child is affected thus the first time he is treated unfairly. All he thinks he has a right to when he comes to you to be yours is fairness. After you have been unfair to him he will love you again, but he will never afterwards be quite the same boy. No one ever gets over the first unfairness; no one except Peter.”
Then he heard his father shouting, home too soon. Hotch stuffed the book away, not waiting to wrap it, and ran.
His mother’s face, later that night, was blank and empty, watching his father. Watching Aaron. His mother didn't say a word - just watched until she turned away and left the room. "No one except Peter," thought Aaron, and knew it was true.
It rained that night. He snuck out to the tree, the hems of his pajamas soaking, his slicker crackling and too-loud in the dark. He snuck out, but not in time: the book was ruined.
He didn't buy another copy till he was in college, in a room of his own, where no one could mock. He put it in Jack's room in the apartment, but never read from it, until his team came to dinner, and Jack trotted out holding it. Garcia organized an impromptu reading, assigning all of them voices. She had looked at all of them arrayed around the table, and kept Hook's voice for herself. Hotch recognized the kindness in that, and couldn't speak it, but by then Garcia had assigned Rossi Smee, and Dave's indignation, only slightly exaggerated (and that, too, was kindness), carried them through the moment.
Hotch thinks about kindness - thinks about unfairness - thinks about them both, looking at Emily Prentiss and the gaggle of machines keeping her alive while he considers the decision at hand. It isn’t fair. Their jobs generally aren’t, but this is well beyond the norm. It isn't fair - to Emily, to JJ, to anyone. They won’t get over it, Hotch knows. They will be different. But they’ll all be alive - even Emily will be alive - and they’ll all learn to cope. It’s the way it works. It isn’t fair.
It isn’t fair. But sometimes there’s justice, he thinks later, Emily’s voice hard and determined on the other end of the line, an ocean away now but coming home soon. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes, he thinks even later, walking away from a hearing that should have left them all shredded and their careers in tatters, sometimes people win. Even if they aren't Peter Pan.
Emily Prentiss doesn’t remember the first time she wakes up. She doesn't really remember the first several times she wakes up. Those memories are mercifully clouded and full of unfamiliar faces. She does remember what comes later. Every grueling hour of recovery. JJ and Paris and grieving. Waiting and watching and never, never knowing. She remembers all of it, just like she’ll remember Doyle dying in her arms, and the Congressional hearing, and walking back into the BAU free and clear and coming home.
She never thought she’d survive it. She never thought she’d be back. “Never,” she hears a voice say in her head, “is an awfully long time.”
Wendy had said it in doubt. But now Emily Prentiss is home, her team safe and alive and gathered close. She hears it as a promise. She hears hope, and wonder, and she laughs out loud.
If you cannot teach me to fly, teach me to sing.
-- J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan