He was going to get caught. He could hide for a little while, but not forever. Never forever.
The forest stretched around him, many of the trees young pines, many not much older than he was. Their trunks were slender, impossible to hide behind. The undergrowth was thicker, but the bushes had long, thin spines on their branches that scratched at his skin and pulled at his hair. Pine needles coated the forest floor, slid against each other with each treacherous step. The pine smell choked the air, obliterating all other scent.
“You have to learn,” his father had told him before sending him out in the forest.
“Learn what?” he had asked.
His father shook his head, the expression of patience on his face infuriorating and useless as an answer. The boy was the youngest, the baby of the family. He was stocky and small for his age. The adults coddled him; they couldn’t help it. His sister and brother made it their duty to redress the imbalance. But they’d all finally agreed he was old enough to join the others. Finally. He needed to prove to them that they were right.
He tried his best to hunker at the base of tree, partially hidden in the tall weeds. It was dark. The reaching branches obscured what little light the stars and the half-moon could provide. He held his breath as long as he could, and let it out slowly when he couldn’t hold it any longer. He tried not to hiss, not to gulp or swallow or make any noise that they could hear as he drew another breath. They were out there. His sister and brother and all the cousins. He could feel them getting closer, closing in on him.
They were going to find him…. find him… find him out.
Jackson awoke with a start. The scars on the back of his neck burned under his skin. He slapped a hand over them, expecting to feel heat radiating through his fingers. His hand found only naturally warm, slightly puckered skin. He was panting, his heart pounding. Adrenaline coursed through his body like he’d been running for his life. Sweat beaded on his upper lip and along his hairline. He reached for the sheet to wipe it off and found it tangled and twisted, shoved to the foot of the bed as if he’d been fighting against it. The room was dimmed and gray, the curtains drawn against the darkness outside his window and the eyes that might be lurking in it. They billowed slightly as he watched, a breeze pushing through the slight crack he always left, even though there was no reason, no need for fresh air in his climate controlled house.
He sat up and flipped on the lamp on his bedside table. The sudden glare stabbed his eyes and he had to squeeze them shut and turn away until his pupils had time to adjust. His room felt cold, so cold. He shivered and reached again for the sheet to pull it up over his shoulders. He couldn’t keep doing this, couldn’t keep waking up in the middle of the night with these nightmares that weren’t nightmares. He needed his sleep, but the dreams wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t go away.
He opened his eyes onto the oak bookcase against the side wall, the one with the shelves meant for displaying his trophies. His overflow trophies, the ones that weren’t good enough for the living room mantle or the display cabinet in the den. Five shelves in his room to hold the trophies and plaques and certificates that could taunt him with his second and third places every morning. The trophies there glinted in the flat electric light from the lamp, the gilding sparkling like it knew it was meant for more. Before he understood what he was doing, he leapt to his feet and was across the room. A nameless rage filled him at what those trophies were and what they represented. His hand wrapped around the neck of the largest trophy, a plain golden cup on a square base, earned for swimming or golf or tennis in his youth. Heaving it over his head, he slammed it into the bookcase, the metal denting on the wood, then pitched it to the hardwood floor where the base snapped clean off. He didn’t have to worry about anyone hearing the noise; his parents were somewhere, not here. One trophy down, he reached for the next and brought it up and smashed it to the bookcase, too. It split right through the veneer with a satisfying crack. Another trophy went the same way, and another.
As he reached for the next one, a hand wrapped around his and stopped him. He turned, and found himself face to chest with the hand’s owner, his own wrist now twisted painfully in it. His looked up to find Derek glaring at him, his eyes shining with a blue light he’d never seen before.
“That’s enough,” Derek stated. He squeezed the hand holding Jackson’s, and Jackson’s fingers were tightened painfully around the metal, a piece snapping off in his grip. His knees buckled and body twisting as he tried in vain to unlock his wrist. “That’s not going to help,” the werewolf said. “Destruction isn’t the answer.”
Jackson gulped. A new bead of sweat ran down his face. “W-what would you know about it?” he asked. He’d been backed up into the bookcase; the sharp edge of a shelf cut a line across his shoulder blades.
“I know enough,” Derek replied. “More than you think.” He narrowed his eyes, assessing. Then, abruptly let go of Jackson’s hand. The trophy in it clattered to the floor. Before Jackson could sidle away, Derek’s other hand snapped out and wrapped around the back of Jackson’s neck, locking him in place. His fingers—his very human fingers, thankfully—pressed on the edges of the scars, lining up perfectly, even from this angle. “I could feel you,” he added. “Because of this.” His fingers tightened briefly and Jackson flinched under the pressure, the reminder of the attack.
A bundle of memories suddenly sprung open in his mind, dream images that he’d suppressed or forgotten, but had never quite been able to shake.
He was older in them, on the cusp of puberty, not the little boy hiding behind a tree. He didn’t care that the pines would never be big enough to hide him anymore. He’d studied his brother and sister, their cousins. He knew the cadences of their heartbeats and the paces of their gaits as they crunched over leaves. He could identify the individual musks and tangs of their scents. He knew how they thought and how they reacted, how they expected him to react.
It wasn’t enough. He could see it at the dawns when the training-game finished and he was once again marched out of the woods at the mercy of his older siblings. “You still have to learn,” his uncle repeated, enforcing the fact that the training was from all the parents, for all the children.
“Learn what?” he asked, the question now cold and empty because he knew he wouldn’t get an answer. They all knew, and they wouldn’t tell him, and until they did he’d never be fully included in his own family.
“We can’t explain,” they answered, time and again. “You have to figure it out for yourself.”
The scene shifted. His hand cut through the water and pressed up against the rough cement wall. A whistle blew, its sound distorted through the liquid. He knew he’d won. The race was over. But his opponent, the guy in the lane next to him, should have won. He knew the boy was the better swimmer, had been watching when his foot slipped off the block, had seen the milliseconds pile on his time with the clumsy entrance dive.
A different opponent, a different event. The boy had stepped up to the tee, his tongue sticking out of his mouth in concentration.
He has the one the dreamer always tried to beat, the only one he couldn’t. His swing was too precise, his ability to judge the wind
and the lay of the course too strong. And just as the club came down, a flutter of movement—a squirrel or a bird off in the rough—
distracted him, and he hit the ball just a little off. Enough off that his ball flew through the air, hit the fairway, bounced, and rolled
to a stop several yards shy of where it needed to be.
Another. Tennis this time. A game evenly matched, though the dreamer was starting to tire, his backhand becoming
sloppier with each second. The ball rebounded off the court, and his opponent reached for it, would have had it except
his foot found a crack in the court’s surface and he stumbled.
He won, over and over, not because he was better, not because he trained harder or had more talent, but because
he got lucky. The other boy would trip or falter, his skill and talent getting lost in a fluke. Those wins were bitter,
unsatisfying. He couldn’t give them back, wouldn’t give them up. But he knew everyone knew that he hadn’t earned
them. He could feel their recrimination when they looked at him, could see hear the edge of disappointment in their
“I don’t know what I did to you,” Derek said, interrupting the onslaught. Jackson’s head fell forward, almost slammed into Derek’s chest save for the hand still palming his neck. “But, it’s changed something in us, rewritten something. We’re going to have to learn together now.”
“W-what do you mean?” Jackson stuttered. He tried to reclaim control over the tremor in his voice, and couldn’t. Derek always did that to him, cracked his defenses. How did he always do that? Why did Jackson always let him? “I don’t understand.”
“We’re linked,” Derek explained. His voice went lower, its tone almost gentle as if he could feel why Jackson’s chin was trembling and needed to calm it. The blue faded out of his eyes into the less threatening hazel. “Your memories, my memories, they’re all tangled. We’re going to have to learn together now.”
Jackson wanted to object to the words. He wanted to want Derek to go away never come back, to take his memories and leave Jackson alone with his. The idea that the depths and frequencies of his failures were on display, even if only to an audience of one, should have incensed him. But it didn’t. All he felt was relief. “Learn what?” he asked, because he remembered this and knew what he had always asked next. No, not him. He frowned. Derek. Derek had always asked that next.
Derek slid his hand around until he was cupping Jackson’s face. His thumb traced a trail over the younger boy’s cheek bone. “We have to learn not to think so much,” he replied. “Learn to …” He cut his eyes away for a second, searching for his response in the shattered remains of the trophies on the floor. “Learn to feel and be. To work together.” He made a noise that from anyone else might be mistaken for a huffed laugh, then added, “So that’s what they meant. Work together. It was never supposed to be a competition.”
Jackson shook his head, still wanting to deny out of habit what was slowly beginning to make sense. “That will make the dreams stop,” he said, though even he wasn’t sure if that was a question or a comment, whether he longed for the possibility or regretted it.
Derek stepped back, his hand fell away. Jackson reached to reclaim it. Even as his arm extended, he was already fighting to pull it back, to curtail the half grab before it could be interpreted as the sign of weakness he knew it was. He’d already shown too much weakness.
A long moment passed during which Jackson expected the werewolf to lunge at him, to throw him back up against the bookshelf, to sneer at him for his imprudence. Derek’s expression was impassive, stern. When he finally spoke, his voice was a soft rumble that Jackson swore he could feel in his bones. “Trust your instincts,” he said. Jackson started, not sure he heard what he thought he’d heard. “We both have to learn that they’re right more often than we want to let them be.”
He held out his hand.