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[tomorrow never knows]

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I.

A screaming splits the the sky.

Stiles wakens, roused from restless slumber by the tremor in the sound, by the waver in its piercing bellow. He arches into the coolness of the bedsheets, peeling away from the static cling and squinting through the velveteen darkness, blinking out the sands of sleep as he strains to see through the cracks in the blinds. He steps out of bed, the springs of the mattress creaking at the loss of his weight. His shoes hit the floor. Still dressed; not bothered to strip down after the events of the evening.

His clothes mold to the shape his skin, sticky and overheated. His body is a furnace, hands clammy as they come up to run callused fingertips in circles over the twitching flesh of his eyelids, brushing away the nighttime residue as he yawns and stretches out his weary limbs.

The screaming persists, now muted into the quieter thrum of an extended whimper, reverberating in the distant woodland grove. Stiles pulls the cord, lifts the blinds. He opens the window, shoulders tensing at the gust of chill. He peers out through the opening, watching as a flock of birds takes flight from the canopy of the forest. They swoop in close at first, dipping down in a V over the network of blacktop suburban streets, wings flapping in the dim illumination of the streetlamp glow, and then they’re off, beating at the night sky like bats out of hell, vanishing pinpricks of darkness as they flee towards the horizon.

Leaves rustle in the fluttering, and the tree-line seems to breathe, pulsing in and out with the force of the wind. The sound is finished now, only an echo left to indicate it ever existed at all. In his sleep-deprived delirium, Stiles notes detachedly that the noise came from the direction of the old Hale house.

He retreats into the semi-warmth of his bedroom, sliding the windowpane shut, fingerprints smudging the glass with the downward tug. He moves away, pulling the blinds closed, shrouding himself in darkness once more. A ray of light beams through the cracks and shines down on the edge of the bed. It invites, and Stiles sits down roughly, elbows tamped down hard on his knees, chin cradled in his palms.

He blinks.

Tonight, he killed a man.

Well. He helped. It was Derek who delivered the blow. Derek who ripped out his uncle’s throat and ended the Hale bloodline. But Stiles helped.

He rubs at his forehead, sucks in his lower lip. Thinks. He decides that the prospect of sleep is but a wistful fantasy now, and he slips out into the hall, tip-toeing down the stairs to the kitchen.

The table-side lamp is switched on, the room occupied. Apparently he’s not the only one whose sleep is troubled.

“Hey, Dad,” he says. Sits down, pulling out the wooden chair, wincing at the creak as the metal knobs scrape against the floor.

The sheriff nods in acknowledgment, hands folded in front of his face, forefingers tapping against his lips ponderously. “Son,” he murmurs.

Stiles’ shoes squeak on the tile, laces come undone. He leans heavily against the backrest. “Can’t sleep?”

The sheriff shakes his head. “You?”

“No.” He chews on his lip. There’s an empty glass on the table, droplets gleaming in the lamplight, and Stiles knows that if he were to go to the liquor cabinet and examine the bourbon, he would find the bottle to be noticeably emptier than it was this morning. “Are you okay?”

The sheriff huffs a short laugh, mouth quirking upward. He spares a moment to smile affectionately at his son before the glimmer of good humor is gone, replaced by weariness. “This used to be a nice town,” he says vaguely, handling the glass, frowning at it slightly, as if judging it for not being full. “Or maybe not. I might be idealizing it.” He sighs. “But that’s the way I remember it, at least. When your mother...”

He trails off, voice cracking, and Stiles swallows back the lump in his throat. His foot edges forward to nudge his father’s. “Yeah?” he prompts.

“It was nice,” the answer comes after a moment. “When your mother and I first moved here. It was a sociable sort of town.” He shifts in his seat, setting the glass down with a soft clink. “There were always cases, of course. No such thing as a city without crime.” He grimaces. “But it was never too much to handle. Nothing like this mess.”

Stiles lets out a soft breath. Stands. He places a hand on his father’s shoulder, bends down to rest his forehead against the man’s hair. 

The sheriff reaches up, squeezes his hand. “Sorry,” he murmurs. “My mind wanders sometimes.” He wraps an arm around his son’s waist, hugs him briefly. “I’m fine, buddy. Just need some time to think.”

Stiles nods, forces a smile. “I’m gonna go out on the back porch,” he says. “Clear my head.”

Stepping outside, the night air brings a chill to his lungs as he breathes in deep. It’s thick, heavy, rather than refreshing, and Stiles feels caught between the exhaustion threatening to give way to sleep and the alert wariness that takes hold without warning.

He stands out there for some time, alone on the deck with his thoughts. He shifts his weight back and forth between his feet, laces tugging as they ride up beneath his shoes.

Eventually, the kitchen lights turn off and the house goes totally dark. But Stiles doesn’t move just yet.

He stays out in the cold. Watches the sky and listens for the sound.

 

II.

His mother died on a Friday.

He remembers that because he was in class when his name was announced - the principal’s voice coming in somber and crackly over the loudspeaker - and he still remembers vaguely wondering when he was going to have time to finish his history project as he walked down the hall to hear the news he’d been dreading all day.

The sheriff was waiting for him in the front office, eyes shining, hands trembling in his lap as he sat in the cushioned chair in the waiting area. It was clear he didn’t know how to do this, and so Stiles didn’t make him say the words. Just pushed down the stabbing loss in his chest and buried his face against his father’s chest, hugging him tight as if afraid he’d lose him too if he ever let go.

He doesn’t think about her as much these days. Not anymore. It used to be impossible not to; she was always there, her memory lingering in the back of his mind every hour of the day. Even when he was with Scott, no matter how occupied he kept himself, her presence was absolute, inescapable. He’d think of her smile, and the way she tied up her hair when she cut up fruit in the kitchen, and how she loved to take him with her on long walks down the highway along the perimeter of the woods and listen to him tell her about his day. And he wondered whether or not the pain would ever become easier to bear.

It’s easier now.

Her memory still remains, though; in tokens and in stories. The collage of family photos still litters the wall of the downstairs hallway leading to the master bedroom. 

The dark green picture frame - a delicate ivory piece given as a wedding gift - is notably empty. Stiles noticed this for the first time about a month or so after the funeral. It was a picture of his mother in her college years: sitting in the shade of an old oak tree, smiling broadly at the photographer, her hair twisted in strands around her shoulders.

Stiles never asks, and his father never tells. But sometimes, late at night when Stiles slips in after an evening at Scott’s house, the soft glow of light from the sheriff’s room still emanates from underneath the door. And can visualize it with ease: his father sitting alone in bed, glass of alcohol clutched in one hand, the picture held tight in the other. Just staring at it, longing for something he can never have again.

But Stiles never asks. Some things are meant to be private.

Even between fathers and sons.

 

III.

“Well, they’re not going to kill me,” Scott tells him as they walk down the length of the road into town.

Stiles raises an eyebrow, hands shoved deep into the pockets of his hoodie, breath coming out in wisps around his mouth. “That’s a good thing, right?” He nudges Scott’s shoulder. “Why so glum?”

“Mr. Argent doesn’t want me dating Allison.” Scott kicks a pebble on the road, mouth twisted in a rueful grimace. “Like, he’s not going to stop me from seeing her, per se, but he doesn’t like it.”

“Did you really expect any different?” Stiles pulls his hands out and rubs them together, curling his fingers into a cup and blowing heat against his skin. “You’re a werewolf. He’s a werewolf hunter. Kind of a bad mix.”

Scott makes a quiet, frustrated noise. “I know, I know. I just wish it didn’t have to be like this.” His mouth curls back, gums stretched to expose his teeth in an unpleasant snarl. “Why couldn’t Derek let me do it?” he asks. “Even if it didn’t work, I still should have been given the chance to try. So why did he do it?”

Stiles shrugs. “I don’t have the answers. You’ll have to ask him.”

“Yeah. Sure.” Scott huffs out an amused chuckle. “He’s not exactly the conversational type.” Mimicking Stiles’ gesture, he rubs his hands together, cupping them up near his face. “Anyway. What’s done is done, I guess. But if he tries to make me be a part of his ‘pack’ or whatever, I’m going to tell him to fuck himself.”

Stiles gives him a look. “Really? You’re going to say that to him?”

Scott pauses. “Alright, maybe not in those words, exactly. But yeah. The basic gist of it.”

“Hmm.” Stiles blinks as the clouds above begin to part, making way for the full brightness of the sun to shine down upon them. “Well, it’s your choice.”

Scott frowns. Stops. He cocks his head to the side, examining Stiles’ expression. “What do you mean by that?”

Stiles shrugs. “Just what I said, dude. It’s your life. Your call.”

“Yeah, but...the way you said it, I mean.” Scott bites his lip, folds his arms. “Do you think I should say yes if he asks? You think I should join his pack?”

Stiles opens his mouth, hesitates. Snaps it shut and thinks for a moment. “I think it’s a good idea to try and avoid any more violence.”

Scott considers that for a minute or so, then nods meaninglessly, neither in confirmation or denial, and the pair resume their aimless walk. The conversation drifts back to Allison, and Stiles stops paying attention, focusing instead on the chirping of the birds in the trees.

 

IV.

The winters in Beacon Hills generally aren’t as harsh as in other places, but the wind is still bitter and the air frosty, and Stiles draws his jacket tightly around himself as he wanders down the nature trail.

One would think he’d have learned his lesson by now, and that he would have ceased these solo outings into the woods; especially knowing what’s out there. And yet he continues to venture into the wilderness on many an afternoon, not for any reason in particular. Just to explore, drift. To take time and ponder it all. 

There’s plenty to think about.

He tenses slightly at the cracking of twigs over the slope of the leaf-strewn hill, and he turns his gaze to peer warily at the cluster of trees up the way.

For a moment, there is no other sound, and he thinks that perhaps it was just his imagination. And then he sees it:

Jackson, coming up over the side of the expanse, legs working furiously as his shoes tear up the earth beneath his feet. His neck is taught, strained from exertion, but his eyes are alive and alert, bright with manic glee. His white t-shirt sticks to his skin, pulling tight across his chest. Sweat trails down from his sideburns, and he pants in the afternoon air.

He pauses at the top of the hill, squatting down to rest, panting heavily, mouth curled up in a quiet smile, as if he’s laughing at some private joke. Seeing Stiles, the smile widens and his eyes flash yellow.

Yellow.

Stiles takes a step back, moving on instinct, Adam’s apple bobbing in his throat. But Jackson doesn’t attack, doesn’t even step forward. Just stands up to full height, knees popping as he lifts out of his crouch, and gazes down the slope with his trademark smirk firmly in place.

“That’s right, Stilinski,” he drawls, voice practically dripping with self-satisfaction. “McCall’s not the only golden boy around here anymore. You ought to let him know.”

Stiles stares for a minute, heart hammering in his chest. He chokes out a half-laugh. “What the hell did you do, Jackson?” he murmurs.

He says it quietly, but - of course - Jackson hears, grin stretching wider still. “Had a little talk with Hale. I thought he owed me for helping to save his ass.” His eyes flicker down, examining himself with a detached sort of admiration. “I guess he agreed.”

“What, you think this is cool?” Stiles asks, raising his voice as a spark of anger ignites within. Jackson matches his gaze evenly, totally unfazed.

“You don’t?”

Stiles pauses, tongue darting out to wet his lips before replying. “I do. I did.” He scratches the back of his head. Grudgingly, “I do,” he admits. “But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s not all fun and games. I mean, Jesus, you know that already. You were there, you saw.”

Jackson purses his lips, eyebrows knitting together in the middle; an annoyed expression he seems to reserve especially for Stiles. “I saw,” he says blandly.

“Yeah?” Stiles makes a meaningless gesture, arms flapping at his sides. “Did you understand what you saw? Do you get that people have died because of this? You’re putting yourself in danger because...what? So you can be the best at lacrosse?”

The low grumble burbling in Jackson’s chest erupts into a full-blown snarl, and Stiles starts at the sound, jumping back. “Don’t talk to me like I’m an idiot,” Jackson says dangerously, eyes burning hot and bright in their sockets. He takes a few step forward, stopping when Stiles cringes. “This isn’t about fucking sports.”

Going for broke, Stiles quips, “Then what?”

Jackson’s eyes cease their menacing glimmering, reverting back to normal color. He blinks.

Heartbeat slowing to regular pace, Stiles relaxes. “Then what?” he asks again, gently.

Jackson flashes him a look of contempt, but it’s half-hearted, without any heat behind it. He turns on his heel and runs off down the path.

 

V.

He bangs on the front door with a closed fist, the wood rattling against his knuckles with the force of each blow. This is a stupid idea, he knows, but his blood is boiling and all he can see is red.

Derek opens up after five minutes of the relentless pounding, wearing an expression that, under any other circumstances, would have Stiles pissing himself with fear. “What?” he snarls.

Not cowed, Stiles matches his glare, chest heaving from the run over. “What the fuck were you thinking?” he snaps. “Why did you turn Jackson?”

Growling, Derek reaches out and seizes him by the front of his shirt, dragging him in and slamming the door shut. “Not outside, idiot.”

Stiles ignores him, marching into the living room and wheeling around to face him head on, feet planted firmly, arms folded across his torso. “Why?” he repeats. “Why?

Derek cocks his head, expression clearly reading I don’t have to explain shit to you, kid, but he says, “He asked me to.”

“You-” Stiles’ arms flap uselessly at his side, hands coming up in a mock-strangling motion. He clenches them into fists, biting his lip to keep calm. “You can’t just...look, you can’t go around turning people - turning teenagers into werewolves! Okay?” Derek’s eyes blaze red, and it occurs to Stiles that the older boy might actually hurt him, so he quickly adds, “I’m not, uh, commanding you or anything like that. I’m just saying that-”

He cuts off with a squeak as Derek grabs him by the throat, slamming him up against the wall. “He will submit to me,” the werewolf grits out slowly, fingers gripping tight. “He will recognize me as his Alpha, and he will not cause any problems.”

“Dude,” Stiles chokes out, trying to pry Derek’s hand away. “Enough with the abuse.”

Derek lets go, stepping back as Stiles regains his breath. “Do not insinuate that I don’t know what I’m doing,” he says coldly. “I know a great deal more about this way of life than you do, so don’t pretend like I’m the bad guy.”

Stiles rubs his neck ruefully, scowling up at him. “All of the issues you and Scott have,” he says, “Well. It’s going to be ten times worse with Jackson. Believe me, there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that he’s going to obey anything you say.”

Eyes flashing again, Derek lips curl back in sneer. “We’ll see,” he deadpans.

“I’m not trying to get in the middle of your business,” Stiles says placatingly, shivering at Derek’s deadly soft tone, “Trust me, I’ve had enough werewolf fun to last me a lifetime. The last thing I want is to get more involved.” Tentatively, he steps forward, forcing Derek to meet his gaze. “I just want to make sure nobody else gets hurt.”

Derek contemplates that, and he almost looks thoughtful for second, then he jerks his head in the direction of the door. “No one will,” he says, confident and self-assured. “Now get out.”

Stiles opens his mouth to protest, but Derek glares him down. So he leaves, door slamming shut behind him.

The sun has started to set in the distant horizon. Stiles trudges back through the woods to his car, watching the sky come alive with color. 

When he gets back to the road, it is dark once more.

 

VI.

“Stiles.” 

Danny’s fingers appear in the periphery of his vision, snapping together close to his ear. He jerks out of his thoughts, turning to look at the other boy. “Hmm?”

“You were dozing off.” Danny’s eyebrow is arched, cautiously questioning. “You alright?”

Stiles nods absently. “Yeah, yeah. Just thinking.”

Apparently satisfied, Danny returns to his laptop. “Okay, well focus, please. This is our last project for the semester, and I want to try to finish out with an A average.”

Stiles clears his throat, shifting the papers on his lap, squinting at the top line. “Right. I got sodium bicarbonate for number three.”

Danny frowns at his computer screen, shaking his head. “Yeah, so did I, but I’m not sure I wrote down the formula correctly. How did you get from...”

A ringing begins to resound in Stiles’ ears, and Danny’s voice fades away. He finds himself drifting away again, staring out the window of his bedroom at the forest. It’s nearly dark, and the crickets are just starting up their chirping chorus. He blinks slowly, and a pair of glowing yellow orbs flash before his mind’s eye. Imprinted on the brain, seared into memory.

“How is Jackson doing?” he says abruptly, interrupting Danny’s series of questions.

Danny stops, looking up from his computer, expression torn between confusion and wariness. “He’s, uh. I...what?”

Stiles wheels around in his spinning chair, folding his hand in his lap. He marshals his face into wide-eyed sincerity. “Jackson,” he repeats. “How is he doing?”

“That’s...he’s...” Danny motions hopelessly at the workload on the desk. “Can we...?” Stiles’ keeps his face neutral, and he can practically pinpoint the exact moment when Danny gives up. “He’s fine, I guess. Although I’m not entirely sure what this has to do-”

“Not acting funny?” Stiles coaxes, propping his chin up with the palm of his hand, wheeling back and forth in his chair. “Doing alright?”

Danny stares. “Yes. He’s fine.” 

Stiles nods, letting out a quiet breath. “Yeah, okay.”

Danny looks at him weirdly, annoyance giving way to concern. “Hey,” he says, putting a hand on the armrest of Stiles’ chair. “Are...you okay?”

Stiles blinks at him, then forces a smile, hoping it seems genuine. “Yeah, I’m all good. Just a little tired.”

They return to the homework after that, and they don’t bring the subject up again.

But when Stiles tries to go to sleep later that night, his mind is restless with visions of glowing yellow eyes.

 

VII.

Exactly two weeks after Peter Hale’s death, Stiles summons up the courage to go straight to the source and have a one-on-one with Chris Argent.

His relationship with Allison has been primarily defined by their mutual connection to Scott, but he can’t help but feel a twinge of relief when he sees her sitting out on the side porch swing as he approaches the house. The way he sees it, her father won’t be so likely to lose his temper with her nearby.

“Hey,” he calls out in greeting, and Allison looks up from her book expectantly, smiling as her gaze falls upon him.

“Hey, yourself,” she says, closing the book and setting it down beside her on the swing. “What’s up?”

He shrugs. “Oh, nothing much.” He glances at the house. “Your dad home?”

Her eyebrows shoot up, and Stiles half expects her to comment, but instead she just nods, gesturing towards the back yard. “Watering the plants.”

Stiles smiles indulgently, giving a little wave. “Okay, thanks. I’ll see you at school?”

“Yep,” she replies, staring after him for a moment before returning to her book.

Mr. Argent is standing in the back next to a rose bush, hand curled around the nozzle of a garden hose. The flow of water pumps out in gentle bursts, droplets coming down delicately on the red petals, dripping off the leaves into the soil beneath. He turns at the sound of Stiles’ footsteps, surprise registering in his expression briefly before his mouth twists into that creepy, faux-neighborly smile he’s so fond of wearing.

“Stiles,” he greets, tone betraying nothing of his thoughts.

“Mr. Argent,” Stiles responds, dipping his head in acknowledgment. Stopping a few feet away, he shoves his hands into his pockets, leaning awkwardly to his left side. “Could we talk?” His heel digs into the grass and he clenches the muscles in his leg tight, willing himself not to tap his foot. “It’ll only take a minute.”

Mr. Argent’s smile never falters. He releases the nozzle, cutting off the flow of water. “I’ve already explained my conditions to your friend,” he says with carefully practiced politeness. “I won’t object to him dating Allison so long as he follows my rules. I don’t think I’ve been unfair.”

“No, no,” Stiles interrupts. “That’s not what this is about.” He pauses, and the hunter looks at him skeptically. “Well, it is, sort of. But not really.” He takes a deep breath. “Look, Mr. Argent-”

“Chris,” Mr. Argent cuts in, fake smile and bland tone still firmly in place. Stiles rocks back on his feet uncomfortably.

“Mr. Argent. I don’t want there to be any more...uh, tension between us.”

Mr. Argent strokes his chin. “Tension?” he says mildly. “I wasn’t aware you and I-”

“Us, collectively speaking,” Stiles rewords, trying to convey his point with hand gestures. “Me, yes. And Scott, definitely. And Derek and Jackson.”

Mr. Argent looks at him sharply. “Jackson?” he asks, his voice reminding of Derek’s deadly growl.

Stiles gulps. “Uh. Yes. He’s...umm. He’s a werewolf now.” He holds up his palms, cutting off the tirade he’s sure is coming. “He asked for the bite,” he says quickly. “It was totally his decision, no one forced it on him. And while you might think it’s a stupid decision - and, to be honest, I actually agree with you there - it’s still not worth getting all...upset about.” He swallows. “Don’t you think?” he adds anxiously.

Mr. Argent glares. “That was very stupid of him,” he says, ignoring the question.

“Yes, and like I said, I agree with you. But please, please, no more violence.” Stiles sighs heavily, dropping his hands down by his sides. “No more violence.”

The anger in Mr. Argent’s eyes evaporates, replaced by surprise. “We’re not monsters, you know,” he says, a hint of amusement creeping in at the edges. “My sister was a loose cannon. She didn’t follow the code.” He nods absently, more to himself than to Stiles. “I’m not going to hurt Scott. I don’t approve of him, but I realize that he’s not a threat.” He pauses. “For now.” He lifts a finger, jabbing it in Stiles’ chest. “No violence on your end, no violence on ours,” he says. “That’s the deal. As long as the people of this town go unharmed, we won’t have a problem.”

Stiles bites his tongue. “Okay...well, forgive me if I’m a little unsure about taking your word for it. You have tried to kill my best friend once before.” He brushes the hunter’s hand aside. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

Mr. Argent smiles, and this time it’s genuine and nasty. “You don’t,” he replies unhelpfully. “You’re going to have to take a leap of faith.”

Stiles knows that’s not good enough, wants to object. But it’s the best he’s going to get, so instead he just nods. “Alright,” he says slowly. “So...truce?” 

He raises his hand, and Mr. Argent takes it in his own, giving it a single shake. “Truce,” he agrees. Stiles turns to leave, and the hunter adds, “Why so concerned about Jackson? I wasn’t under the impression that you two are that close.”

Stiles gait doesn’t falter. He doesn’t even look over his shoulder. “We’re not,” he calls.

 

VIII.

The semester fizzles out without incident. It’s actually rather anticlimactic. Not that Stiles is disappointed; boredom beats life-threatening peril any day of the week.

His grades are solid, nothing spectacular. His father looks over his report card with a half-smile and a quiet chuckle, and that’s the extent of their discussion on the subject.

Lydia is awake now, alive and well. Her memory of formal night is fuzzy; clear enough that she’s noticeably friendlier to Stiles than ever before, but not so clear that she’s been asking around about mysterious men with glowing eyes and jagged teeth. She seems to have lucked out in that regard.

The weeks leading up to Christmas are eerily calm. No visits from Derek. No run-ins with the Argents. Just Stiles and the sheriff, and their empty little house full of memories.

They spend Christmas Eve watching old movies and swapping stories. It’s the first time in what feels like years that they’ve had the chance to really sit down and just talk. And it’s good.

Right up until the point when the TV screen goes dark with static at the end of the tape, and the sky outside grows black in the cold of the evening. Then the conversation begins to dull, and the weight of their aloneness starts to sink in. Stiles finds himself staring at the empty armchair next to the couch, and when he glances to his father, he doesn’t miss the vein pulsing in the man’s temple, eyes glassy with sudden wetness.

The sheriff coughs awkwardly, standing up with a forced smile. “I think I’m going to hit the sack, kiddo,” he says. “Don’t stay up too late.” Stiles listens to his footsteps fading down the hall, hears the door to the master bedroom click shut. He flips through channels for a while, trying and failing to focus his mind on any of the inane late night programs. Giving up after some time, he rises up and flicks off the light. The glow of the lamp shines underneath the door of his father’s room, and he swallows hard, his eye drawn immediately to the empty ivory picture frame on the wall.

Sleep no longer a feasible option, he slips out and drives to the nearest gas station to pick up some eggnog. The streetlights burn in the winter chill, and he blinks away exhaustion as enters into the fluorescent lit room.

The clerk is half-asleep, her cheek resting against the register, mouth hanging open. The store is empty, apart from one other customer. Jackson.

The boy looks up at the intonation of the door chime, and he meets Stiles’ gaze levelly.

“Stilinski,” he says.

“Jackson,” Stiles replies tiredly, not in the mood for an argument.

Jackson doesn’t seem to be looking for one anyway, though, as his mouth twists into an almost warm smile and he says, “Good holiday?”

Stiles shrugs, politely sliding by him to get to the glass door of the cheap refrigerator, quickly selecting a carton. “Not bad. You?”

“About to get better.” He holds up a case of beer, wiggling his eyebrows mischievously. He reaches his other hand into his pocket, whipping out his wallet to display his fake I.D.

Stiles hums disinterestedly. “Looks real,” he says, brief and bland.

Seemingly oblivious to his tone, Jackson’s smile doesn’t fade. “Wanna help me destroy this?” he says lowly, shaking the case tantalizingly. “My parents are gone on business, so no interruptions.”

“Hmm.” Stiles shifts slightly, rubbing his elbow. “No thanks.” He slides past to the register, slapping on the counter to wake the clerk. As she rings him up, Stiles catches Jackson’s expression in the convex mirror in the upper right corner. It’s not quiet readable, somewhat distant. He’d almost go so far as to classify it as hurt. 

But that wouldn’t make any sense.

He mumbles thanks to the sleepy clerk and steps out into the parking lot, door swinging closed behind him.

He doesn’t look back, but he can feel the weight of Jackson’s gaze on the back of his neck. And it makes his hairs stand on end.


IX.

For the first time in his life, he’s invited to a New Years Eve party. By Lydia, of all people.

It’s not his scene: a tipsy conglomerate of kids he doesn’t know all packed together in a tight press of merry drunkenness in the foyer of the Martin house. The booze is cheap - and Stiles doesn’t even care much for beer in the first place - and the music is too loud, and he feels uncomfortable and very much out of place. But Lydia keeps close to his side and laughs at his lame jokes, and when everyone gathers around the tube to watch the ball drop in Times Square, she leans up on her toes and kisses him at the end of the countdown.

It’s a moment he’s dreamed about for years, and of course there’s no way the real thing could ever measure up to the perfection of his fantasies, but still he can tell that there’s something off in the feeling. Something about the angle or the force behind it, or the way her tongue explores his mouth like it’s some sort of foreign world, seeking forth with trepidation rather than with vigor or alcohol-fueled arousal.

And when she pulls away as the cheers subside, fountains of confetti raining down on the people on the TV screen, Stiles sees the look in her eyes, sees the doubt, and understands straight away.

“It’s okay,” he tells her, swallowing back the lump in his throat, forcing a small smile to match her own. “You don’t have to try and like me just because I like you.”

Her lips twitch, the beginnings of a grimace, and he knows he’s hit the nail on the head. “You’re a really great guy,” she says, somehow making it sincere and frustrated and apologetic all at the same time.

He nods, mouth pulling back into a real smile now. “Yeah, well. Thanks. I’m glad you think so.” He shakes his head slowly. “But you don’t have feelings for me. Not like that.”

She looks uncomfortable, guilty even, and it’s so out of character for her, so different from the supreme confidence that usually defines her, and Stiles reaches out to tug on the sleeve of her arm. A friendly gesture, a quiet reassurance. “I want to, though,” Lydia whispers, blunt and honest.

Stiles shrugs, biting the inside of his cheek. “You like who you like,” he says, hoping to come off as nonchalant.

Lydia stares at her feet for a minute, only glancing up at the loud sound of a pair of drunk girls messing around with pans in the kitchen. She makes a half movement as if to leave, pauses, and squeezes Stiles’ hand once. “Friends?” she asks.

And it’s a genuine request, not a half-hearted settlement for something less, so Stiles can’t even bring himself to say anything other than, “Of course.”

And as she makes her way through the crowd to the other side, fiery hair vanishing into the sea of color, Stiles’ fantasy of her begins to crumble to dust. The ideal is gone, and the girl remains.

“Good night, folks!” the news anchor is saying. “I hope you’re ready for a brand new year! I sure am!”

 

X.

The winter thaw gives way to spring, and with it comes the new semester.

Classes vary in toughness, and the routine kicks in straight away, like clockwork. Scott and Allison are still together, and happy, as far as Stiles can tell. There’s an undercurrent of tension whenever the subject of her parents comes up, just enough awkwardness to reaffirm Mr. Argent’s adamant disapproval of the relationship. But there’s no fighting. No violence.

Stiles only sees Derek on three or four separate occasions in the time between January and March, all in public, never allowing for any private conversation. Just a meeting of eyes across the supermarket or the gas station or the parking lot at the pharmacy. Just a head nod, a silent acknowledgment of Yes, I still know that you exist

There’s a part of Stiles that feels left out of the loop, frustrated that he doesn’t know what’s going on the werewolf front. But in truth, he doesn’t really want to know.

He and Derek run into each other on a Wednesday afternoon at the movie theater. Stiles is just coming out through the double doors, tossing his empty bag of popcorn in the nearest trash can when he catches Derek’s eye. There’s a purple bruising around the skin there, fading but still ugly, and when Derek catches him looking, his lips curl at the edges and he glares defiantly, daring Stiles to say anything about it.

Never one to disappoint, Stiles quips, “Jackson’s submitting well, I take it?”

He’s not sure why he says it, not sure if that’s even the real reason for the bruise. But the moment the words slip out, the moment he sees Derek’s reaction, he knows he’s guessed right.

Derek stares at him for a moment, as if silently making up his mind whether or not to rip out his throat, then just grunts and pushes past.

And that’s the extent of their interaction for that month.

 

XI.

The white concrete walls are faded with dark dust, worn down by time. The table-side lamps glow is supposed to be soothing, but Stiles finds it aggravating, sleep-inducing. He sits on the little blue couch with his hands folded in his lap, foot tapping with nervous energy as the lady flips through the papers, her green pen rapping lightly on the edges of the clipboard. 

Brenda, her name tag reads. No surname, no “Dr.” Just Brenda. Like that by itself is supposed to endear her to him.

“I don’t really feel like talking,” he tells her, and she looks up with arched eyebrow, expression indiscernible. “Just so you know.”

She contemplates him for a moment, nods, and returns to the papers, eyes scanning each line with studious focus. “That’s okay,” she says calmly. “I get that a lot.”

Stiles shifts on the couch, springs creaking beneath him under the firm cushions. “It was my dad’s idea,” he adds, feeling the bizarre need to explain his presence. “He thought I should talk to someone.” A pause. “Yeah. His idea, not mine."

The psychiatrist - Brenda, Stiles’ mind supplies - nods again, not bothering to look up this time. “That’s okay, too. I’ve worked with your father several times before, and we’ve had varying levels of success with each patient.”

That’s news to Stiles. “You’ve worked with my dad?” he asks, taken aback.

She looks up, sparing him a brief smile before glancing down once more, eyebrows knitting together as she scribbles out something on her notepad. “I specialize in treating troubled young people, and your father specializes in dealing with troubled people in general. Sometimes our interests coincide. He’s recommended patients to me before, and I’ve recommended patients talk to him when it’s necessary to involve the law.” She finishes reading and sets the clipboard down on the table, giving him her full attention. Seeing the look on his face, she adds, “Not to imply that you are troubled. Just that, yes, your father and I have worked together before.”

Stiles leans against the backrest, picking at his fingernails absently. “Uh huh.”

Brenda sits cross-legged, watching him neutrally. Her expression is open, inviting, but not sappy or patronizing. There’s no hint of condescension. “Your father,” she says after a minute of silence, leaning over to squint at the clipboard over the top of her black-rimmed glasses. “He thought you should see me because...” - she flips a page, scans the bottom paragraph - “...because you had a panic attack at school.”

“Passed out,” Stiles corrects, voice coming out harsher than he intended. Softening it, he repeats, “I passed out. It wasn’t a panic attack.”

She shrugs, folds her hands in his lap, mirroring his own posture. “Alright. Could you describe it to me, please?”

He sucks in his lower lip, stops tapping his foot. “I was in class and I started getting lightheaded. I started sweating, and my hands were shaking. And my stomach...I felt nauseous. And then I asked to go to the bathroom, and when I stood up...I passed out.” He shrugs. “And that was it.”

Brenda hums meaninglessly. Stiles glares at the clipboard, certain she’s going to pick it up and start writing. Following the line of his gaze, she just smiles knowingly and uncrosses her legs, sitting upright. She doesn’t grab the clipboard. “Those symptoms sound like a panic attack to me.”

Stiles shakes his head. “It wasn’t,” he insists stubbornly.

“Maybe not,” she acquiesces. “But healthy teenage boys don’t just pass out in the middle of class for no reason.” She tilts her head to the side, studying him. “Was there a test that day? Were you stressed out about homework, or friends?”

“No.”

“Nothing you can think of? It’s a total mystery to you?” It’s not an accusation, but her tone isn’t entirely innocent. She’s looking at him expectantly, probingly.

Stiles looks away. “Like I said, I don’t really feel like talking.”

Brenda leans back in her chair, and she does pick up the clipboard now. “Okay.”

They sit for a few minutes in silence. Stiles listens to the ticking of the clock on the wall. It’s one of those gift shop souvenirs; a tacky red thing with pictures of birds in place of the numbers. Stiles squints at it closely. The nightingale is next up on the hour. He looks back at the psychiatrist, watching as she scribbles on her pad.

“What are you writing?” he asks.

“I’m not,” she says, turns it around to show him. “I’m doodling.”

He blinks. “Doodling?”

“Yes.” She flips it back, shaking the pen out, scratching it against the paper. “Not all of my patients want to talk, and I never force them. If you want to sit quietly for the rest of the session, you are free to do so.” She taps the clipboard. “In the meantime, I’ll keep myself occupied with this sketch of a cardinal.”

Stiles stares, blinks again, then looks away. There’s a photograph on the wall, a blown up picture of a mountain vista at sunset. The stars are just beginning to come out and the sky is alive with color. The words “Peace and Serenity” are printed in the bottom left corner. For some reason, that tickles him, and he lets out a derisive snort. Brenda looks up for a moment, sees what he’s looking at, then looks back down.

“You like birds, I guess,” Stiles says after a few more minutes, gesturing at the notepad, at the clock.

“I do,” she says, eyebrow arched pointedly. We’re not here to talk about me, it says.

Stiles shifts uncomfortably. After a few more seconds of quiet, “What is it that you want me to say?” He meets her eye, doesn’t let himself look away. “What am I supposed to tell you?”

“You’re not supposed to tell me anything,” she answers easily, readily. “This is your time. You can talk - or not talk - about whatever you wish. There aren’t any rules of conversation here.”

He sits up, moving forward to the edge of the couch. He scratches his cheek. “Okay,” he tries slowly. “Well, what if I would like to talk about some stuff, but I can’t really talk about everything because...” - because it involves werewolves and murder - “...just because. What then?”

She puts the notepad aside. “Then I’d suggest you talk about the stuff you feel comfortable sharing, and leave the rest out.” She adjusts her glasses. “I’m not the police. You don’t get in trouble for lying or cherry-picking what you want to discuss. I’m here for you. This is all about your mental health. Tell me what you want.”

Stiles ponders that for a moment. The ticking of the clock seems to grow louder, pounding out a tempo in his ear drum. The minute hand inches ever closer to that cheerful nightingale. After a while, “I dunno. Everything’s changing.”

Brenda’s neutral expression relaxes, loses its tension. She sits back comfortably, hands resting lightly on the armrests, fingernails drifting along the seams. “Hmm,” she hums, prompting him to continue.

He huffs out a mirthless little laugh, rubs his hands together. Sits back. “Actually, scratch that. The world is changing, but the people are all the same.” He laughs again, rubs his chin ruefully. “Yeah,” he murmurs. “That’s it.”

“Expand on that,” she says, and Stiles feels a rush of gratitude when she keeps her focus on him and doesn’t start writing anything down. “What do you mean?”

Stiles sighs, tilting his head back to gaze at the ceiling. “My best friend,” he says. “Scott. Who, actually, let me be honest, is probably my only friend. He’s got a girlfriend now, and she’s sort of become the focus of all his attention.” He shrugs. “And I get that. That’s okay. But it’s just...” 

Brenda listens patiently, doesn’t pressure him to continue. Observes attentively.

“I don’t know how to put it,” Stiles admits. “I guess it’s just that he’s always been like this. He’s always been the sort of guy who spends most of his time with one person. Partly because he’s never been that popular, like me, but also just because that’s the way he is. That’s the way he like it.” He shrugs again. “But it used to be me that he spent time with, and now it’s his girlfriend. Which, like I said, is okay, and I understand. But...yeah. The world’s changing, but the people...” He trails off. His shoulders slump. “I don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“No, no.” Brenda shakes her head. “I think I understand where you’re coming from. You feel like the circumstances that have defined your life up until this point are changing, becoming something else, while the people you interact with on a day to day basis aren’t adapting to the new order of things.” She drums her fingers on the armrest. “Am I close?”

He thinks, nods slowly. “Something like that, yeah.”

Satisfied, she crosses her legs once more, shifting in her seat. “A lot of young people feel that way,” she assures him. “A lot of Americans, for that matter. I hear it quite often from my patients. Feelings of being trapped in a radically changing universe with the inability to change themselves.” She peers at him through her spectacles, hand coming up to rest against her cheek. “You are who you are,” she says simply. “Your personality. Your memories, your experiences. All of the things that have shaped you. You can’t just turn all of that off with the flip of a switch because you think you need to adjust to something. It doesn’t work like that.”

“I know,” he says, surprised at how bitter he sounds. “I do.” He sighs tiredly. “I just...I dunno.”

They sit quietly for some time. Stiles glances at the clock. Fifteen minutes till the bell. Brenda watches him intently, doesn’t move.

Eventually, Stiles speaks up. “It was about a rabbit.”

Brenda blinks, taken aback for a moment, then steadies her expression into carefully-schooled neutrality. “What was?”

“The pan-” He crosses his legs. “When I passed out in class. I was thinking about a rabbit.”

“A rabbit?”

He nods. “Yeah. This past January, I found a baby rabbit out in the woods. He got his foot twisted or something, and he was just lying there. And I thought he was going to die, so I took him home. To take care of him.” He chews on his lip. “My dad didn’t really like it because he thought it might be diseased or whatever,  but he let me keep it. He said I could keep it until it was strong enough to go out by itself again.”

Brenda doesn’t say anything, doesn’t make a sound of acknowledgment. She watches him, listens to the story.

“So I did,” Stiles continues, voice soft, distant. “I kept him and I fed him, and I made him healthy again, and he was mine. For a while, anyway.” He pauses. “And when spring came around, I took him back out to the woods and set him loose. And he ran off.”

The clock ticks in the silence.

“So you were thinking about that moment?” Brenda asks. “Letting the rabbit go? That’s what you were thinking about the day of the panic attack?”

Stiles shakes his head. “No. That morning, I saw a rabbit lying in the road with its neck severed on the way to school. Somebody had run it over.” He twists his hands together, expression blank. Abruptly, he lets out a little laugh. “This is stupid,” he mutters. He looks up, a wry smile curling at the corners of his mouth. “It’s stupid. It wasn’t even the same rabbit. I know that. It wasn’t the same color or anything.” He leans back in his seat, rubbing his forehead.

Brenda’s expression isn’t quite so neutral anymore. “Then what?” she asks softly. “What about that sight drove you to the breaking point?”

He looks up at her. “Because it could have been,” he says simply. “It could have been mine. It could have been my rabbit. The one I took in and fed and raised and, you know, loved, I guess. As much as you can love a pet you’re not intending to keep.” His thumb brushes up against his mouth, smoothing the skin there. “It could have been,” he murmurs. “I could have done all of that, then set him free, and then he could have run out and got himself hit by a car straight away.” He looks up. “And then what?” he whispers.

The hour hand strikes and the mechanical voice of the nightingale begins to sing.

 

XII.

Derek comes to see him, finally. He slips in through the window after all the lights in the house have been turned off, creeps up next to the bed and slams his hand over Stiles’ mouth, stifling any noise.

“We need to talk,” he says.

They go outside, take a walk down the street. It’s May now, and the weather is fine. Stiles doesn’t need a jacket; just strolls down the road in his sweat pants and t-shirt, flip-flops slapping against the blacktop, breathing in the semi-warmth.

“Can’t you use doors?” Stiles says, just to say something. Not even expecting Derek to answer.

Derek doesn’t. “I think I might have made a mistake,” he says instead, gritting the words out like it’s seriously killing him to admit a fault.

“A mistake?” Stiles asks.

“With Jackson.”

Stiles takes in a long breath. “Ah.”

Derek gives him sharp look. “Don’t be smug,” he warns. “Don’t.”

Stiles holds up his hands, broadcasting peace. “What, you mean rub it in?” he says innocently. “I would never.”

Derek just grunts, shoving his hands in his pockets, looking all broody and tall and intimidating. “I want you to talk to him,” he says, again speaking through his teeth, as though asking for assistance is the most painful thing in the world.

That gets under Stiles’ skin, and he glares and says, “Why? What good am I supposed to do? I’m not involved in this shit anymore, remember?”

Derek’s hands ball into fists at his sides, and he looks for a moment like he’s carefully considering the ramifications of bashing Stiles’ head in. Then his fists unclench and he breathes in calm and slow. “You’re good at this,” he says shortly. “Better than me. A hell of a lot better than your idiot buddy.”

“Scott,” Stiles interjects, not forgetting how Derek stole his friend’s chance for the cure.

“Talk to him,” Derek prods, ignoring the comment. “Try and convince him to submit to me. Explain the consequences.”

Stiles crosses his arms. “He was there, Derek. When Peter-” He cuts off at Derek’s growl, voice catching in his throat upon being faced with a pair of glowing red orbs. “He was there,” he says, a little more timidly. “If he doesn’t know how serious this stuff is already, there’s nothing I can say that will change his mind now.”

“Try,” Derek says, turning on his heel and walking away, ending the conversation abruptly. 

Stiles watches him go. “I don’t think so,” he mutters to himself.

 

XIII.

And he’s not going to do it. He’s really not.

But there are certain things a guy just can’t ignore. Certain things his conscience won’t allow him to dismiss.

“The body has yet to be identified,” the newscaster is saying, pointing behind him as the camera zooms in on the paramedics wheeling a bright yellow body bag into the back of an ambulance. Stiles’ stomach lurches as a splotch of red blossoms on the side of the fabric.

Words leap out at him, cutting through the ringing in his ears. 

“Brutalized.”

“Decapitated.”

“Thought to be an animal attack.”

His father sits off to his side, oblivious to his distress, clucking his tongue. “Poor guy,” he murmurs, swallowing down the rest of his scrambled eggs. “What a mess.” He stands, brushing crumbs off his shirt and pulling Stiles into a quick hug. “Gotta go to work. See you tonight.”

“Yeah,” Stiles says faintly, watching the TV screen with a sort of dazed detachment.

So it looks like he’s going to need to have that talk after all.

 

XIV.

“Mr. Argent invited me over for dinner with the family,” Scott is telling him as they run around the track, tuning out the expletive-laden encouragements of Coach Finstock. “It’s the first time since he found out I’m a werewolf that he’s voluntarily invited me into his house.” He nudges Stiles, expression anxious. “That’s progress, right? Don’t you think? It’s a good sign?”

“Sure, yeah,” Stiles says distractedly, eyes focused up ahead where Jackson is rounding the bend of the track, legs pumping hard and quick, brown knitted with concentration.

“I think so, too,” Scott says, completely unaware. “I’m sure of it. I mean, it’s got to be, right? Why else would he want me to come over?” He nods to himself, jogging alongside Stiles. “Yeah,” he mumbles. “Yeah, that’s it.”

As they come up to the curve, Jackson meet Stiles’ gaze from across the way. Stiles has a moment of realization - remembering that the last time the two of them spoke was at the gas station on Christmas Eve - and he feels his chest growing tight.

Jackson’s mouth twists into a meaningless smirk, and it’s so much different than the usual disdain Stiles has grown accustomed to in their interactions. It’s nasty and knowing and amused, and it means nothing at all, but it hits home for some reason, and Stiles feels a little sick.

Later, in the locker room, Stiles hangs around until everyone else has filed out, taking his time with getting dressed. On a hunch, he goes to the stall where Jackson showers, bending down and examining the grate of the floor drain. Popping out the miniature screws, he lifts it up and reaches down inside.

When his hand comes away, there’s a mess of moist, pulpy redness drenching the length of his forearm, chunks of matter clinging to his skin.

Swallowing back bile, he looks away, he squeezes his eyes shut and pops the grate back in place. Then he turns on the faucet and washes it all away.

The crimson streaks pool together in the grout, then vanish into the blackness of the hole. 

All gone.

 

XV.

It doesn’t seem earned, Stiles will think later. It doesn’t feel dramatically correct.

Because there’s no build-up. There’s no preamble to this moment. Some small part of him still clings to the idea that it’s possible to see a few steps ahead of the game as long as you pay close enough attention.

But life isn’t like that. Moments like this - these violent times - they’re quick and brutal and unpredictable.

And no one sees it coming.

“Jackson,” Stiles calls, his breath fogging up around his mouth in the woodland air. It’s strangely cold. Too cold for summertime.

Jackson stops jogging, pausing to turn and fix his gaze on the other boy, eyes glowing in the dark. This isn’t the moment Stiles would have chosen - running into one another in the forest in the evening - but it’s as good a time as any. And the conversation can’t wait.

“Stilinski.” The reply is short, saturated with disdain. But it’s all surface level. There’s an uncertainty beneath it.

Emboldened, Stiles takes a step closer, feet crunching on the leaves. “We need to talk.”

Jackson snorts derisively, “It’s been months. We could have been talking the whole time. I tried to talk to you before, remember?”

Stiles pauses, shoulders sagging. “Christmas,” he acknowledges wearily. Sighs. “I didn’t know that’s what that was. I thought you just wanted someone to get drunk with.”

“Yeah, well.” Jackson barks out a quiet laugh, looks away. “Even if that’s what I had wanted, is that such a bad thing?”

Stiles opens and closes his mouth, shivers in the sudden gust of wind. “That’s not really the point anymore,” he says gently. 

There’s a crackling up the way, and Jackson perks up at the sound, stiffening in alert. “Shh,” he says. Stiles ignores him.

“We need to talk,” he insists. “About...the stuff on the news.”

That gets Jackson’s attention. His brow wrinkles, eyes narrowed, confused. “What?” he says. Thinks for a second. His eyes light up with understanding. He shakes his head, expression open and disbelieving. “Wait up. That’s not-”

The crackling sound resounds again, closer this time, and the beam of a flashlight cuts a path between them, bringing the conversation to a dead halt. Footsteps stamping down on the earth and the leaves bring Chris Argent over the side of the hill, light in one hand, shotgun in the other. There’s a terrifying emptiness in his face, echoes of his sister in the ruthless tilt of his mouth.

“I think I made myself crystal clear,” he says, calm and low, gun coming up to rest in the crook of his arm, barrel drifting lazily to aim in Jackson’s direction. “I explained the code.”

Stiles holds up his hands, heart hammering in his chest. “We can talk about this,” he says, voice wavering. “We can talk like people, right? No guns, no violence.”

“You’ve got your facts wrong,” Jackson growls, and his eyes are on fire now, skin rippling, threatening to shift at a moment’s notice.

Mr. Argent holds the barrel steady, taking careful aim now, head cocked in warning. “Don’t you move,” he orders. “Stay right there.”

“We can talk,” Stiles insists, weaker this time. “No violence.”

Jackson moves, eyes still focused on the gun pointed at his chest. He starts to circle the hunter, his teeth starting to elongate. “Back the fuck off,” he snarls. “I won’t tell you twice, asshole.”

“Jackson!” Stiles eyes go wide, shakes his head furiously. “That’s not helping.”

Mr. Argent flicks the safety off. “Get out of here, Stiles,” he says, voice dark and deadly. “Leave now.”

“No violence,” Stiles whispers.

Jackson drops to all fours, hackles raising, and Mr. Argent pulls back the hammer.

It doesn’t feel earned. That’s all Stiles can think as he panics and darts forward, moving as soon as the hunter’s back is turned. There should have been talking and understanding, without weapons, without it coming to this. There should have been a lot of things.

But instead they’re here, and all Stiles can do is slam himself into the man’s back, throwing his aim off center as he takes the shot. The blast is deafening, and Stiles clamps his hands over his ears, falling to his knees as Mr. Argent wheels around and knocks him flat on his back, foot coming down on his throat. There’s a heart-stopping bellow, and Jackson charges forward, claw coming out to grab the man by the throat and throw him against the trunk of an old oak tree. Mr. Argent hits it with a loud thud, then slumps to the floor, shotgun lying uselessly in the leaves nearby.

It’s over in seconds.

Stiles gets to his feet shakily, dusting off the knees of his jeans. “Thanks,” he chokes out, turning to Jackson.

His breath catches in his chest.

Jackson’s reverted back to his human form, chest still heaving from the transformation. His shirt is ripped, hanging in tatters around his shoulders. His eyes are wide, startled. His hand is held up, raised up to eye level. It’s drenched with blood.

The two boys just stare for a moment, stunned, then turn to look at the hunter’s prone form lying against the tree. His head is cocked at a weird angle, eyes open and blank. Unseeing. Stiles leans in closer, cautiously, and swallows hard at what he sees. 

The man’s throat is ripped open, completely exposed. His entire front is dripping with red.

“Jackson,” Stiles breathes, nauseous. He turns, shaking. Jackson looks just as sick, the muscles in his throat working furiously.

“I...” he starts.

He’s interrupted by the pattering of feet, coming in quick through the undergrowth. The two boys tense, ready for another fight, but then the bushes part and Derek comes running into the clearing.

He skids to a halt, the redness in his eyes fading, replaced by shock. He stares at the grisly scene, still as a statue.

In the distant blackness, a nightingale begins to sing.