The Doghouse Screw

By ahab2692 (Archive of Our Own)

A/N: This a fanfiction repost of the original author's Jackson/Stiles fic.

Anyone who takes the time to look closely can gather the sense that all Jackson's ever wanted from this world is to feel like he actually belongs somewhere.

Such an assumption wouldn't be entirely wrong. It's a need that's grown over the years, bubbling up inside him like a pot about to overflow or a swelling balloon ready to burst, and he's spent most of his life trying to keep a lid on it. Trying to hide the desperation behind a mask of perfection.

He doesn't come to this self-awareness in any specific moment. There's no blinding revelation, no moment of truth. It's a sense of longing that's developed with time and provocation. It's a yearning so suffocating and all-consuming, it's a wonder he hasn't driven himself mad with his own self-loathing.

So most people might reasonably assume that's the reason he summons up whatever meager courage he has left after helping Molotov the Alpha and goes to demand that Derek give him the bite. Judging by the sneer on Derek's face, it's probably what he thinks, too. He's not totally wrong, but it's not the full picture. Jackson doesn't bother to correct him. Why bother? he thinks.

Jackson cringes away - he can't help himself - when Derek starts moving up into his space, eyes all red and glowing, teeth elongating into glistening fangs like daggers in the dark. He backs up fast and quick, tripping over a broken chunk of floorboard and stumbling into the wall. Derek's teeth recede, and his mouth curls into an amused smirk as he stands firm, looming over the younger boy with an air of authority.

"Do you want it or not?" he chuckles, low and mocking, and Jackson bristles at the condescending tone.

"Yes, obviously," he snaps, irritated. "But you don't have to like, maul me, asshole..."

He flinches again when Derek's hand comes up to push hard against his chest, pinning him against the wall with ease. "Well, you're going to have to hold still," Derek says slowly, like he's explaining something painfully obvious to a small child.

The teeth are coming out again, and Jackson's Adam's apple bobs in his throat. "Will it hurt?" he asks timidly.

He shudders under the pressure of Derek's hand when the werewolf answers his query with a truly nasty smile. "Oh yes."

Jackson licks his lips nervously. "Oh. Okay." He stiffens in anticipation when Derek's mouth starts to open for the strike. "Where are you going to bite me?"

Derek pauses, eyes glancing over Jackson's body, considering the question. "The closer to the heart, the better," he answers matter-of-factly. "It will increase the likelihood of the bite taking."

"And..." Jackson trails off. Derek scowls at him impatiently. "And what if it doesn't, uh, take?"

"Then you'll probably die," Derek replies right away, no hesitation. His tone isn't cruel, isn't threatening, but it's got a sort of detached indifference that hurts Jackson's feelings a lot more than it ought to. He did help save this guy's life, so he really should feel somewhat grateful for the assistance.

But Jackson doesn't voice that opinion. Instead, he just nods, screwing his eyes shut tightly. "Alright. Do it."

There's a pause, and Jackson opens his eyes cautiously to see a flicker of surprise cross Derek's face. Like he hadn't been expecting that to go over so easily.

But then the moment is gone, and the werewolf's eyes are all glowing and intimidating again. He grabs a fistful of Jackson's hair and yanks his head back to expose his throat.

And without another word, he snarls and bites.

He's gasping for air - he can't breath - and Derek's dragging him down the stairs to the basement to drop him unceremoniously on the floor with a parting quip ("I'll come back to see if you're alive in the morning."), and then the door is slamming shut, and he's left alone in near-total blackness.

Thoughts run wild through his feverish mind, darkling visions dance before his eyes. It's not like when Derek scratched him in the locker room; he's not seeing the remnants of someone else's life. The memories are his own.

Stop in time: he's six, and he hears the word "adopted" for the first time, and he sees the way the adults in the room glance at him when it comes up.

Flash forward, and he's ten. The word comes up again, and this time it falls from the lips of the man and woman who he's been calling Mom and Dad. And now the term and its meaning are thrown into sharp focus, and it feels like a curse. It tastes bitter in Jackson's mouth, and he never wants to hear it again, doesn't want to be reminded that he's lesser. That he's someone else's.

Someone who didn't want him.

Flash back, and he's three. He's at nursery school and an older boy steals his crayons. He feels a flash of anger. As much rage as a toddler can muster.

It's the first memory that sticks.

Flash forward again. He's twelve and his mother's making him watch Casablanca. He's an all-American boy, born and raised in the MTV generation, and he doesn't have the attention span for something like this. He's restless and bored and he doesn't pay much attention for most of it. And then Ingrid Bergman shows up and he's riveted.

It's not lust, not even a crush. He's barely even at the point in development when such thoughts and feelings are starting to become tangible. But it's something, and he thinks she's an angel, and when she's looking into Humphrey Bogart's eyes at the denouement with all of that love and adoration and longing splayed openly across her face, Jackson feels a lurch in his stomach that he can't quite define.

He can't associate that feeling with anything except want.

Flash forward further to when he's thirteen, and he watches the movie again. This time, the feeling, the want, makes sense. It's not want for her, or for anyone in particular. It's for what he sees in her expression, for the depths of emotion she's plumbed in that moment where she looks into her lover's eyes. Jackson wants that for himself; he wants to feel it for someone, and he wants someone to feel it for him.

Flash back again. He's mere hours away from being eleven, and his parents - his adoptive parents - take him to the carnival for the first time. It's only in town for the weekend, and they don't let him stay for more than a few hours, but it's a happy memory. One of his few.

There's a clown making balloon animals and a shooting gallery lined with toy guns and bottles of soda pop, and there's a merry-go-round with brightly colored horses pulling chariots. Behind the rows of vending machines and cotton candy makers and popcorn stands, there's a huge Ferris wheel cranking round and round on its axis, glittering bulbs illuminating the fun-fair below.

At the center of the circus, there's a big red and white striped tent billowing int he evening breeze, and Jackson gathers his coat up around him and pushes past the flap with his grubby hands, and he pushes his way through the crowd to gather near the perimeter of the inner circle. The stadium is full, so he stands at the front and watches along with everyone else as the ringmaster proudly presents the night's lineup of freaks. They come out one by one: a bearded lady with sagging skin, a man with no arms and legs who can roll a cigarette with his tongue alone, a deformed woman with misshapen hands. The audience gasps and oohs and aahs as they parade around with big white-toothed smiles, but Jackson feels sick because he can tell that their grins are phony. They're for show. He can see their sweat, can practically taste their shame and embarrassment.

One of them is a dwarf - a "little man," as announced by the ringmaster - with an enormous forehead and a pointy chin, and his smile is widest of all. Jackson watches him closely, and the man eventually catches his eye. His permanent, picture-perfect smile doesn't fade, but there's an accusation in his gaze, Jackson is sure of it.

Why do you get to be perfect? it says. Why should you be happy?

I'm not, he tries to communicate without words, lump rising in his throat. I'm as miserable as you.

The message probably doesn't translate, but if it had, Jackson imagines the response would be a derisive Yeah right, kid.

He turns away and flees the tent. He finds his parents and asks to be taken home.

Flash forward to high school, and he's sixteen and trapped in a prison of his own making. He has friends, sure, but they're casual. Kept at a distance. They don't know him, and he doesn't care enough to find out anything about them.

It's an awkward arrangement; creepy, if examined carefully. They all talk to each other at school - inane, meaningless chatter; white noise - and they sit together at lunch, and some of them come to Jackson's lacrosse games to hold up signs that proclaim he's #1, and most of them will show up with dates and booze to the parties he throws on weekends. And they all smile at each other and laugh at each other's jokes.

And the smiles are phony. Just like the freaks at the circus.

Only this time, Jackson's the freak-show, the "popular kid." People don't so much want to befriend him as to bask in the limelight of his plastic perfection, hoping for a taste of his unearned coolness. None of them care about him. None would come for him now as he's lying in the basement of the Hale house in a rapidly spreading pool of his own blood choking to death on bile and fluids.

Maybe Danny, but even he would do so mostly out of duty and good nature. Danny is a friend, his only real one, and it's in those quiet hours the two of them spend lounging on the hood of Jackson's car in the Friday night dusk that Jackson can finally let his defenses down. Not all the way, but just enough to listen to Danny talk about things that are real, and things that matter. Stuff beyond lacrosse and girlfriends or boyfriends and good grades and cool parties or getting wasted; all of the bullshit that seems so important in the high school hierarchy, but will quickly turn to dust in the afterglow of graduation.

Jackson doesn't do much of the talking. He can't share himself with anyone, he won't, and Danny understands that, accepts it with resignation. Danny talks about anything and everything: his anxieties about the future, his fear of failure, his struggle with depression and his ongoing conflict with his family regarding his sexuality. Jackson just listens, doesn't give advice, doesn't comfort. But maybe Danny's not looking for any of those things, and all he really wants is a good ear to talk to. And Jackson doesn't judge him for any of it.

He's the first person Danny comes out to, and his response is a shrug and an, "Okay." Not disgust, not reassurance. Just acceptance of the fact. Danny's gay, and that's the way it is. He can't dredge up an emotional response beyond that.

So they're friends. Probably because Danny's discovered in those listening hours that there's more to Jackson than he lets on to the rest of the world. He wants more reciprocation from the friendship, Jackson's sure of that, but he puts up with what he's got.

Lydia's a token, something to wear around his wrist and show off to all of his admirers. She's not so bad, he figures. She's like him: a beautiful shell with a heart of stone and an empty life.

Until it turns out she's not. She's actually smart, and she's got a bright future ahead of her, and she's playing the game just because she can. Because it's better to be the center of affection and adoration in high school, even if the glory is temporary and fleeting. And Jackson starts to hate her for it. He plays shallow because it's the only way he knows how to live, it's the only thing protecting him from the hollowness of himself. What's her fucking excuse?

So he dumps her, abruptly and cruelly and without sufficient explanation. It's so abrupt, she's certain at first that it's a joke, and when he assures her it's not, she's genuinely shocked, devastated. He really ought to feel more regret when he sees the betrayal in her eyes, but reaching down into the depths of his heart, he comes up dry.

Flash forward, and there's that whole mess with McCall and Stilinski and the Alpha ripping Lydia's guts out, and Jackson makes sure she gets aid and he helps torch the monster in the forest.

Then Derek's ripping the thing's throat open with a disgusting squelch, and there's blood on the ground and the smell of burning flesh and fur permeating the air.

Flash forward, and he's busting down the front door, and Derek's jumping down the stairs with gleaming eyes and a devil's smile, and...

Flash forward once more, and he's here.

In the now.

Returned to life from the edge of the abyss, gasping for breath with tears in his eyes, clutching at his throat and chest, feeling the places where the puncture marks ought to be. His eyes are wide and his body is heaving, and he has to blink away the dust as the light from outside shines in through the crack under the doorway. It's daylight.

He closes his eyes, steadying himself, and he can hear his heartbeat in his ears. It's a drum.

The sound of the door creaking open splices through the metronomic tempo, and he claps his hands against the side of his head, wincing at the onset of a killer migraine.

Derek stands silhouetted in the doorway, looking down at him from the top of the landing. His expression is blank, indifferent.

"You're alive," he observes. Nods and turns to walk back into the foyer. "Good."

Jackson lies there quietly for a while longer, waiting for the energy to spur on the willpower to stand.

It takes some time.

He drives home, and his mother comes rushing out down the front steps to meet him.

"You didn't tell us you were spending the night with someone," she scolds, hugging him close, sniffing at his clothes. "God, you smell awful. You haven't been drinking, have you?"

"No, Mom," he mutters, sidestepping her embrace to move into the living room. "Sorry I didn't call. Last minute plans."

His father is sitting in his favorite armchair with the newspaper, still in his bathrobe and slippers. Without looking up, he calls out, "Don't let it happen again, son. There are rules. We like to know where you are."

"I know, Dad," Jackson says, already ascending the stairs to his bedroom. "I'm going to take a nap. We had a long night."

"Okay, son," is the quick reply.

Jackson closes the door to his room, rolling his eyes as he flops down on the bed.

Son. Son. Like a verbal tic. His dad always picks it up when Jackson gets out of line, as though he feels the need in those moments to unsubtly reassure him that he belongs. Which does nothing except remind him how very much he doesn't.

The migraine is gone, but he's still feverish, goosebumps breaking out over his skin, palms clammy and sweat dripping down his forehead.

He peels off his shirt and drops his trousers to the floor, wrapping himself up in the blue bedsheets like it's a protective cocoon. Like he's a fetus in the womb, preparing to be born anew into the world as a different being.

The hot blood of the animal courses through his veins, and he can feel the changes reworking the very fabric of his DNA. He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes, praying for dreamless sleep.

You wanted this, he reminds himself. You made your bed, now lie in it.

And so he does.

He doesn't see Derek again before the weekend is over, so he's left to his own devices to figure this whole werewolf thing out. Which is fine by him.

Returning to school on Monday morning is like moving slowly through some sort of surreal dream. There are whispers in the hallway about Lydia being attacked and sent to the hospital, and Jackson feels like he's sleepwalking through the day.

"Dude, what's up with you?" Danny interrogates him at lunch, nudging him in the side to get his attention. "You've been acting weird all day. And where'd you disappear to at formal?"

Jackson blinks at him. "I'm fine," he mutters. "And I didn't disappear, I just left."

Danny flashes him a skeptical look, but lets it drop. He always does.

It's not until the last bell rings and Jackson's cramming textbooks into his locker that he finally runs into Scott. Jackson pauses with one hand on his backpack and the other on his Chemistry book, and Scott just stares at him, wheels clearly turning in his mind. Stiles - of course - is with Scott, hanging by and watching the staring match with obvious discomfort.

There's a flash of recognition in Scott's eyes, and Jackson knows that he knows. Because of course he does. He can smell it, or sense it, or whatever. The change.

"Problem?" Jackson asks neutrally, keeping his face impassive as he watches the other boy silently put the pieces together.

Ignoring him, Scott turns to answer Stiles' questioning gaze with a grimace. "He's got it. The bite."

Stiles' eyes widen, and he looks at Jackson carefully, studying him as if he can tell just by quick cursory perusal. "Really? But how did-" He cuts off, understanding dawning on him. "Ah. Gotcha. Derek."

"Well, enjoy it," Scott cuts in, surprisingly loud, and Stiles and Jackson both jump at how harsh he sounds. "I sure it'll totally be worth the price. Just as long as you're the best on the team, right? Because that's what it's all about."

Jackson feels a growl rolling around low in his chest - and, okay, that's definitely new - and Stiles sort of backs up a little, looking nervous, like he's expecting the two of them to start clawing each other's faces off right here in public. "Don't assume you know everything about me," Jackson retorts, feeling his trademark sneer slipping into place unbidden. It's like a reflex now.

Scott just snorts, and Jackson's blood boils at the disgusted, sympathetic look on his rival's face. "Trust me, you're not that hard to figure out," Scott says lightly. And with that said and done, he turns on his heel and marches out through the double doors.

For a brief moment, Jackson feels the urge to call out after him, to keep the argument going, but then the need has passed, fizzled away, and he's moved on to zipping the backpack closed and shutting the locker door. He pulls the straps over his shoulders and looks up to see Stiles still standing there.

"Is there something else?" he asks drily.

Stiles hesitates for a second, but Jackson can practically see him doing an internal shrug - a What the hell, why not? - and then the boy walks right up in his space.

"He's just upset," Stiles offers in explanation, ignoring Jackson's question. "He's still pissed that Derek didn't let him whack the Alpha."

"He wouldn't have anyway," Jackson scoffs, turning away and starting down the hallway. "He doesn't have it in him." Stiles follows close behind.

"And you do?" the other boy asks. Weirdly, he's able to make the question sound legitimately curious instead of mocking. Jackson just huffs a non-reply, hoping Stiles will go away. He doesn't. "So we should probably talk, you know?" he continues on in a cheery tone, like he and Jackson are friends or something. "Now that you're one of us and all."

Jackson stops to turn the full brunt of his glare on the brunet. "I'm not 'one of you,' okay?" he grits out. "You're not even 'one of you.' It's just Scott and Derek and myself, and none of us like each other all that much, so don't think this makes us buddy-buddy or anything."

Unfazed, Stiles claps him on the back before skittering off to follow his best friend. "Yeah, whatever. You know where I live when you're ready for my help." He flashes Jackson a parting grin over his shoulder and waves goodbye.

Jackson glowers, stomach twisting into a knot for some reason. "I don't need help!" he calls, glaring down the few students who shoot him weird looks.

He steps out into the sunlight, pressing a fist up against his forehead in response to the pang of the sudden brightness. By the time he's driving home with the stereo turned up loud to drown out the sound of his mind running haywire, he's forgotten all about McCall and his annoying sidekick.

The day's confrontation doesn't even surface in his thoughts until later that night when he's lying in bed. He closes his eyes and, unbidden, the image of Stiles smiling at him in the hallway pops into his head. He blinks once or twice, and then it's gone.

Huh.

As far as Jackson's concerned, it's a point to his credit that he doesn't scream when Derek slips into through his window at half past midnight, eyes all narrowed and menacing in the dark.

"Jesus fuck," Jackson whispers, voice strained, heartbeat through the roof. He tosses off the bedsheets irritably, sitting up and rubbing away the sleep from his eyes. "Can't you like, use a cell phone or something? Instead of the whole pervert-at-the-window routine?"

"You haven't come by since the weekend," Derek says blandly. Totally ignoring Jackson's question, as usual.

"Was I supposed to?" Jackson retorts. "It's not like you gave me instructions or anything."

Derek crowds into his space, teeth bared, a soft snarl rumbling in his throat. Jackson scoots backwards across the bed, pressing himself up against the wall. "You didn't come by," Derek repeats, voice soft and dangerous.

Jackson swallows, staring at Derek's fangs. "I'm...sorry? Is that what you want me to say?"

There's a rush of air, and then Derek's hand is on his throat, squeezing tight, forcefully. Dominating. "You're pack now," the older werewolf tells him. "And you're under my authority. I'm responsible for your actions, so you're damn well going to learn how to handle this properly. Understand?"

"Yes," Jackson chokes out, peeling Derek's hand away. "Fucking yes, okay? God. You don't have to be a psycho about it."

Derek's eyes flash, but he doesn't respond to the insult. Seemingly satisfied with putting the fear of God into Jackson, he backs up to the window, pausing halfway through to fix the boy with one last glare. "We start tomorrow," he says.

And then he's gone.

Jackson slumps back on the bed with a groan. "Start what?" he whisper-shouts.

There's no answer.

Training, apparently, is what they're starting.

It's nighttime again, and Jackson feels the changes coming on, even without the additional pressure of anger or stress. Derek pops in unannounced, but he at least has the decency to knock on the window first; a brief rap of the knuckles against the glass to declare his presence.

"Take off your clothes," he says in lieu of greeting. "You're not going to need them."

In any other context, that would sound downright lewd, but this is Derek, and for all the jibes Jackson makes, he's pretty sure the guy's not actually a pervert.

So he shrugs off his t-shirt and drops his pants without protest, following Derek soundlessly down the side of the house and across the street into the woods.

It's his first full transformation, and it feels like pins and needles prickling at every fiber of his muscle and tissue, flesh and bone. His tendons strain against his organs, blood running white hot through bulging veins. There's a sharp, scratchy feeling on the back of his hands, and when he looks, he sees the thick fur coming in dark and bristly. The pressure in his neck swells, and he collapses on the ground in pain. He can feel his spine pop, and his shoulders broaden, teeth elongate, claws unsheathe, mind coming undone.

Derek's standing by, and he's in his Alpha form, and even as a werewolf, Jackson's fucking terrified of the guy.

Unbidden, a howl wrenches itself forth from his throat as he tilts his head toward the moon. He can tell by the burning in his skull that his eyes are glowing hot. His last coherent thought is to wonder what color they are.

Later, when he's crouched low over the toilet in his hallway bathroom, the events of the night will come back to him in flashes: charging through the forest with Derek at his side, claws slashing up roots and vines and all sorts of plant life as he barrels through the undergrowth, Derek biting down hard on the scruff of his neck when he makes the mistake of veering off towards the town, the taste of little woodland creatures' blood dribbling down his hot throat as he chews their still-beating hearts into mush.

He throws up, vomit sloshing sickly green in the toilet bowl. He remembers coming down to human form, shivering in the cold, bare flesh exposed to the wind and the weather. And Derek striding up like some Adonis to tower above his prone form and look down with distaste.

"Good enough," he'd said, and Jackson face had flushed red with shame and anger. Good enough isn't what he's aiming for.

This isn't how he'd imagined it would be. Then again, he doesn't really have a point of reference. He hadn't thought much past the decision to make this thing his own.

"Give me the bite," he'd said, and Derek had complied. And now he's stuck with it.

For better or for worse.

"I know I'm going to regret asking this," Danny begins slowly, watching as Jackson lights the pipe and starts sucking from the bowl, fumes bubbling up and shooting up the cylinder into his lungs, "but do you want to talk about what's been up with you lately?"

They're out by the freeway, sitting in some abandoned gas station parking lot beside the interstate overpass. It's smoking night, so they're using Danny's car. Jackson would never live it down if his parents caught the smell of weed clinging anywhere near his Porsche.

"Are you referring to anything specific?" Jackson replies, exhaling softly and passing the pipe and lighter across to Danny. "Or just talking in general?"

Danny rolls his eyes, pausing to take a hit before answering. "Come on, don't play dumb. You've been jumpy for weeks, and you've gotten sick like, I dunno, about five times at school this month. And you're irritable." He snorts. "Well, alright. More irritable than usual."

"Thanks for the compliment to my personality," Jackson says sarcastically, flipping the switch to push the chair back, closing his eyes as he reclines in the passenger's seat.

"You're welcome, as always." Danny bites his lip, setting the pipe down on the dashboard, playing absently with the lighter in his hand. "I'm just concerned, dude. You're not yourself. And I just want to make sure everything's okay."

"Right as rain," Jackson drawls, not bothering to open his eyes. "No complaints here."

Danny nods cautiously, like he doesn't really believe him. But he doesn't press the subject. "Lydia woke up this morning," he says instead.

Jackson opens his mouth to respond, then shuts it tightly. Thinks. "Okay," he says eventually.

"You gonna go see her?"

"Hmm..." Jackson rubs his face tiredly, blinking blearily and tilting his head to take in Danny's apprehensive gaze. "I'm not sure that's a good idea."

"It probably won't be pleasant," Danny agrees. "But..." He trails off. Pauses. "But I think you sort of owe it to her."

Jackson frowns. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Danny shoots him a disparaging look. "Come on."

Raising his palms in surrender, Jackson nods, grimacing. "Alright, alright. You're right. Totally right."

"So you'll see her?"

Jackson snatches the pipe off the dashboard, holding out his palm for the lighter. "Yes, I'll see her. Pushy bastard."

And he does. And it's not pleasant.

The trauma of the attack has left her with some memory loss, so that takes care of the issue of having to explain the werewolf crap to her. But she sure as hell remembers how Jackson treated her. No luck on that front.

"What the hell do you want?" she opens with. Not even a hello to preempt it.

She looks better, less pale, less sickly, and she's sitting up in the hospital bed. But Jackson still feels a rush of self-loathing, a twinge of guilt. He looks down at the bouquet of flowers in his hand, suddenly hating them. It's such a meaningless, empty gesture, and what a fucking tool he must look like: hair all teased up and perfect, jacket fit nice and snug, carrying a bushel of roses as an apology. A picturesque image of artificial sweetness. It's sickening.

"I wanted to see how you were doing," he lies, setting the flowers down on the bedside table and pulling up a chair. He doesn't want to see her, doesn't want to be here. He's only here to put an end to this part of his life. To fix what he's broken so he can move on with a stronger peace of mind.

"You came, you've seen," Lydia says delicately, face blank, unsmiling. "Now leave."

Jackson forces down the urge to scowl, instead molding his expression into a convincing imitation of remorse. "I also wanted to say I'm sorry."

Lydia folds her arms, fixing him with a withering glare. "For what?" she asks, and Jesus fucking Christ, she's going to make him say it out loud.

Restraining the impulse to groan, Jackson sighs instead. "For dumping you like that. It was rude and unnecessary, and I should have handled it differently. I'm sorry. Please forgive me."

She shakes her head incredulously, staring at him like she's seeing him, really seeing him for the first time. "That's it? That's all you've got?" She snorts. "You're not even really sorry are you?" she says shrewdly. "You just want me to forgive you so you don't have to feel guilty about being an asshole."

You're not far wrong, he thinks, but he says, "No, that's not it."

"Yes it is." She fluffs up her pillows, slinking down under the covers and rolling over to face the wall. "I never thought we'd be together forever," she says, voice muffled slightly. "I didn't have any illusions about that. But I believed you were better than what you turned out to be. I thought you were like me. I thought you were...I dunno, the way you are just because that's how you can survive best in public." She tilts her head to look at him once more, expression cold and unsympathetic. "But I guess that's just the way you really are. You're just a shallow dick." She rolls over again. "Don't worry about me. I'll be fine. I promise. A guy like you isn't worth pining over. Consider us through." She chuckles mirthlessly. "That's what you wanted anyway, right? Well, wish granted. Don't let the door hit you on the way out."

He thinks about saying something back, defending himself from her accusations. But there's that voice in the back of his head that whispers She's right with malicious glee, and so he just leaves instead. Leaves without another word.

They'll see each other later on. They'll pass in the hallways, and sit nearby in certain classes, maybe at lunch as well. They'll show up at the same parties from time to time, and they'll see each other's faces in the crowd when they eventually graduate.

But they'll never have another conversation, never talk to each other again.

They're completely, utterly finished.

And Jackson's not sure what it says about him that he doesn't really give a damn.

His parents seem to think that he's depressed - they probably got the idea from Danny - and they surprise him with a puppy as a present, apparently under the impression that nothing more is needed to cheer him up.

"Do you like him, sweetie?" his mother asks anxiously, clasping her hands together against her breast as she watches the dog jump up and lick his face.

Jackson forces a smile, the beaming white-toothed grin he often uses to charm people into letting him have his way. "Yeah, he's great," he says, ruffling the puppy's fur, stroking its soft ears. "Thanks, Mom. Thanks, Dad."

"He's a German Shepard," his dad says, watching the display with folded arms, a wry smile curling at the corner of his mouth. It's that smug look that says I've done good, haven't I, boy? "He's gonna get a lot bigger, so you'll probably need to get a doghouse. Keep him outside."

Jackson names the dog Ben, and he does decide to keep him in a doghouse, but instead of going to the store and picking one up, he feels compelled to build it himself.

"That'll take some time," his father warns, face puzzled, tone bemused. "I guess you can keep him in the garage until you're finished."

So he goes to collect wood, but he chooses not to go the the lumber yard or the nearest depot, opting instead to use material from the tree in the backyard that fell over in the most recent thunderstorm. The wood's not rotted out yet, and he chops it into rectangular logs, sawing the boards down to the right size and shape, sitting in the gathering dust on the garage floor every afternoon after school and taking the electric sander to smooth it all down and brush away the splinters.

It's an arduous task, but he keeps at it, working like a madman and filing the woodwork down to perfection, taking the hammer and the nails and screws and beating it all into an acceptable boxy shape. He buys glue and shingles from the supermarket, and he chops off another hunk of wood to build the roof. His parents watch in concern from the sun room as he crouches out in the backyard with his shirt lying forgotten in the grass, sweat dripping down his neck while he hammers it all into place.

A week and a half later, and it's finished. It looks perfect.

"What can I say, son?" his father says admiringly. "I'm impressed."

They drive a spike into the ground in the center of the doghouse, and at night, Ben gets put on a chain and collar, and he sleeps inside the structure his master built for him.

It's a small accomplishment, but it makes Jackson feel a spark of worth when he sees it out the window in the mornings before school. I built that, he thinks. I made that.

The only flaw he can find is a loose screw at the top of the back left supporting pole that keeps popping out. Every day when he unhooks Ben from his leash and lets him bound around the yard to play, he goes around the side of the doghouse to discover, without fail, the shiny piece of metal lying innocently in the grass, barely visible in the glint from the sun.

And every day, he picks it up and screws it back in place.

"You need to focus," Derek snarls, tossing a change of clothes at him after a rigorous night of training and exercise. "You've got to learn how to control this thing. I can't be around you all the time, and eventually you're going to snap. Unless you can teach yourself to calm down."

"I'm trying," Jackson snaps, cramming his hands into the sleeve holes and pulling the shirt over his head, wiping away dirt and grime and blood and God knows what else off his chin. "It's fucking hard."

"Not as hard as you make it look," Derek retorts, and then he's moving in closer, and Jackson scrambles away instinctively, backing up against the nearest tree, eyes widening in panic. Derek's mouth twists in satisfaction. "Still afraid of me?" he asks rhetorically.

Jackson feels a flush rise to his face, and with it, a thrill of anger. "You wouldn't be, if you were me?" he says, jutting his chin out.

He cringes again when Derek takes another step closer. "Fear is a natural response, but a thing like you takes cowardice to spectacular new levels."

"Fuck you," Jackson spits out, eyes screwed shut, body tensed in expectation of an attack. "If I'm so God damn useless, why did you bother turning me in the first place?"

There's no answer for a moment or two, and when Jackson opens his eyes, he sees Derek looking him with detached amusement. "Every pack needs a wolf like you," he replies. "I picked you because you'll roll over easy." Jackson feels affronted, but he doesn't deny the charge. "I don't need a pack full of McCalls," Derek continues. "Insolent teenagers who defy every word I say. Even Stiles isn't afraid of me anymore. Not really." He steps in closer, gripping Jackson's hair and pulling it back. Jackson whimpers in submission. "It's just you," Derek murmurs.

Then he lets go, turning away to gather up his own clothes on the tree stump at the edge of the clearing. "I'm going home," he calls over his shoulder. "You should, too."

Jackson feels bitter tears stinging at his eyes, and he wipes them away angrily, storming off in the direction of the town. He didn't expect them to become friends, now that they're alike. He didn't expect them to become anything.

But this, whatever this is, isn't what he wanted. It isn't what he needs.

Even within the pack, he's still an outsider. Still the weak one.

Still doesn't belong.

He's playing Frisbee with the puppy when his phone rings loud, vibrating in his pocket and tickling his leg.

It's not a number he recognizes, but he picks up anyway.

"Hello?"

"Hey there, Wolfie!"

Jackson closes his eyes, recognizing the voice right away. "Stilinski. How the hell did you get this number?"

"Got it from Derek," the boy replies, cheerful and upbeat in spite of Jackson's grumpy tone. "It took a little convincing, but Mr. Sour Wolf eventually handed it over. So anyway, what's up? Ready to have that talk I mentioned earlier?"

Jackson's immediate impulse is to just hang up and put the phone on silent, but he knows Stiles will just confront him at school the next day. Might as well get this over with. "What is it that you think we need to talk about?"

Stiles makes a sort of incredulous noise, a cross between a snort and a cough. "Seriously? Maybe like, the whole you being a werewolf now thing? That ringing any bells?"

"Still not sure how that warrants a conversation," Jackson says, and he can't help but smile a little at the indignant squawk on the other end of the line.

"Dude, really? Are you being intentionally thick right now? I mean, I know you think I'm useless or whatever, but I was able to help out Scott when he was first going through this, and I can help you out too. Whether you want to believe it or not."

The puppy trots up with the Frisbee in his mouth and drops it at Jackson's feet, whimpering softly and tugging at his pant leg with tiny teeth. "Why do you care so much?" Jackson huffs out, crouching down to scratch behind the dog's ears. "You're not even part of the pack."

It's a low blow and not entirely true, and Jackson regrets it as soon as he says it, but he doesn't take it back. His pride won't let him.

Stiles, however, doesn't seem to take offense. There's a brief pause, but then he comes back with a soft, "Derek says he's going to keep an eye on me because I know too much about the werewolf stuff to be left alone. And the way I figure it, if I'm stuck with you lousy mutts, I might as well be doing something to help, you know? Whatever I can do. And Scott's too busy sneaking off with Allison and sulking about Derek being an asshole for me to do much good for him. And I sure as hell am not going to try to offer Derek advice. I like my throat intact, thank you very much." There's a deep breath, followed by a dramatic sigh. "So that pretty much leaves you. And who better, right? You're new at this, you've probably got a fuck-load of questions, even if you'd never admit it to anybody. So what do you say?"

Jackson feels a twinge of annoyance and, to his surprise, hurt. "Even if I did want your advice," he snaps, "I don't like being your third choice. I'm not going to be some project for you where you stand around and bitch about how much it sucks to be stuck helping me."

He's about to hang up, but Stiles voice cuts in quick and rushed, and his finger pauses over the button. "No, no, wait!...Okay, that didn't come out right. I'm sorry, alright? I didn't mean to make it sound like that." He sighs, and Jackson can just picture him in his mind's eye: leaning up against a wall somewhere, running his hand through his short-clipped hair, chewing on his bottom lip. "I know you have, uh, self-image issues and shit. I get that, believe. I have problems of my own. I don't think you're a burden. I'll be happy to help you."

"Derek's training me," Jackson interrupts stiffly, pointedly ignoring the self-image comments. "I'm not sure what you think you'll be able to help me with that he can't do a better job with." Then, as an afterthought, "No offense."

"None taken," Stiles responds, tone back to that maddeningly cheerful, almost singsong cadence. "Anyway, I see what you're saying, but I'm not talking about training or anything like that. I'm talking about, like, emotional stuff. Feelings."

"Feelings," Jackson repeats, narrowing his eyes. "What are you talking about?"

He can almost see Stiles' eye roll. "God, don't tell me you're actually a robot. You do have feelings, right? That funny tingling sensation you get when something happens that makes you happy or sad or whatever? Right?"

Jackson snorts derisively, but he can't help but crack a small smile. "I've got Danny."

"Huh?"

"If I want to talk, I can talk to Danny."

"Uh...no you can't, dude." Stiles sounds seriously worried now. "He doesn't know anything about this stuff, remember? And if you drag him into the middle of everything, he'll be stuck with us until, like, Derek says otherwise. And I know you don't want that. I mean, you're an asshole and everything, but you're not that much of an asshole."

Jackson grits his teeth, pulling the phone away from his ear to glare at. Swearing silently, he grumbles, "What makes you so sure I need to talk?"

Stiles is silent for a minute or so. Then, "I'm not. But I know that if I were in your shoes, I'd sure as hell want someone around who understood what I was going through. And you're not going to get that from Derek Hale. So I'm your best bet." There's a crinkling sound, maybe a candy wrapper being opened, and when Stiles speaks again, his voice is muffled, like he's chewing on something. "Look, you have my number now. Save it in your phone. I can't force you to get all touchy-feely, but if you ever need an ear, I'm your guy."

And then he hangs up.

Jackson stares at the phone for a while, only looking away when Ben whines, scratching at his sneakers with grubby paws.

"It's okay, boy," he murmurs, bending down and letting the dog nuzzle up against his cheek. "It's okay."

Later, when he's sitting at the dinner table pretending to listen to his mother's work story, he goes back to his recent calls list and saves Stiles number.

Just in case, he tells himself.

Some guy he knows - Cody? Brian? He's not sure on the name - is throwing a party while his parents are away on a business trip, and Jackson's on schedule to score some beer.

He doesn't really feel like going, but ultimately decides that it's better than sitting around the house by himself with the possibility of Derek showing up for a surprise training run. And anything's better than being alone with his thoughts.

So he goes, reluctantly, and he picks up the booze with a fake I.D. It's not too hard to fool the cashier since he looks like he could pass for a college kid, and the guy behind the counter doesn't look like he gives a shit either way.

It's the typical sort of drunken mess: girls all dressed down in their skimpy outfits, wearing extensions in their hair and photoshopped smiles on their faces, sidling up to all the sporty types of guys with hopes of getting some action in the back rooms down the hall or up the stairs. Guys in jerseys and polos and sideways baseball caps making lewd, obnoxious sounds as they grind up against their dates in the living room, music pounding in their eardrums from the digital speaker system. Jackson can pick out one or two who sincerely seem to be trying out for prospective frat boy of the year, what with their self-entitled sneers and popped collars, rough hands sliding down the waistbands of their girlfriends' underwear, completely unmindful of the public surroundings.

Jackson makes the nice, walking around with a red plastic cup - empty, apart from ice, but it helps ebb the relentless tide of drunken assholes jonesing to pour him more alcohol - and he keeps his smile plastered on tight as he listens to the same inane bullshit he's been made to suffer through year after fucking year.

"I'm not lying, bro," some guy is telling him, and Jackson forces a laugh and nods his head, "I swear she had the tightest God damn pussy I've ever seen in my life. It was like bam!" He makes a lascivious gesture, and Jackson thinks for a moment that he might actually be sick.

He stays for a few more minutes, just enough time to say his hellos to everyone who matters, and then he's walking out the door, quick-paced and reaching into his pocket for his keys.

And then he's driving down the road in the dark, speeding way too fast, and he feels like he's choking on the noxious fumes of beer and weed and teenage sweat and sex. He can smell the stink of emptiness, and it's miserable and suffocating. He feels saturated by it.

He doesn't end up vomiting though, and he gets home in one piece, trudging through the back yard to slip in through the living room door, pausing on the way to pick up the doghouse screw and slide it back into place, restoring the appearance of perfection in the wooden structure.

Falling into bed has never felt so good.

He's in the parking lot after school, and he senses more than feels the approaching presence, and he turns just in time for Chris Argent to grab ahold of the front of his shirt and push him up against the side of his car.

"What the fuck?" he asks, going for angry, but coming out a little too squeaky to be intimidating.

"The Hale boy," Argent says, staring at him unblinkingly, iron grip unrelenting, "He turned you, didn't he? Gave you the bite?"

Jackson contemplates lying, but it's Chris Argent, and the guy's a fucking werewolf hunter, so lying to him right now probably isn't the smartest plan. So he just nods, clenching his jaw tight and trying not to look scared. "Yeah. What of it?"

Mr. Argent doesn't look upset so much as mildly irritated, weary, and disappointed. He sucks on the inside of his cheek, digesting that for a moment or so. "That's unfortunate," he says, and Jackson stiffens, thinking that maybe the man really will hurt him. But then he continues, "Did you ask for it? Or did he force it on you? If he made you take it, the we're well within our rights to take action." He cocks his head, studying Jackson's expression carefully. "Surely you didn't ask for it," he murmurs. "Surely you're not that stupid."

"Well, I guess I am," Jackson retorts, irritation sparking up inside of him. Mr. Argent backs away suddenly, looking wary, and Jackson suspects from the heat rising at his center that his eyes are probably glowing. He forces himself to calm down, not giving in to the anger. Derek will never let him live it down if he wolfs out in the middle of the high school parking lot.

Mr. Argent probably won't let him live it down either.

"That is unfortunate," the man says, folding his arms across his chest, tension draining out of his shoulders as Jackson's wolf-like features revert back into human ones. "I can't imagine why you'd do such a thing."

Jackson doesn't dignify that with a response. He doesn't owe anyone an explanation.

Mr. Argent seems to sense that he's not going to get anything out of this conversation, so he turns to go, calling over his shoulder, "You're Allison's friend, so I figured I owed it to you to give you a warning: you get the same treatment as anyone else. Don't hurt anyone, and we'll stay out of your business. That's the rule. Break it, and we'll come after you. I guarantee it."

"Yeah, I gotcha," Jackson mutters, probably too low for the hunter to hear, but it's really more for himself anyway.

He fishes around in his jacket pocket and lifts out the keys, clicking the button to unlock the car as Mr. Argent walks to his own vehicle without a second glance back.

The training is going better, or at least Jackson thinks it's going better, and then it all goes to shit.

He blinks rapidly in the early daylight, clutching at his chest as he breathes in the woodland smell. Derek is standing over him, holding out a change of clothes, expression stone cold.

"What?" Jackson asks as he works his legs through the pant holes, doing his best not to put any attitude into the question. He's learned by now not to bother pissing the Alpha off intentionally. It never ends well for him.

"What do you remember?" Derek says shortly, arms folded, voice dangerous. He's already dressed.

Jackson looks around vaguely, hoping for a clue as to Derek's bad mood. "Remember?"

"From last night? What do you remember?"

"Not much," Jackson shrugs. "Just the usual stuff. Running, hunting. Same old, same old."

"Yeah?" Derek snarls, eyes glowing red.

Jackson swallows, but stands his ground. He can't let himself be cowed by every intimidating gesture. "Yeah," he says evenly. "Running and hunting. That's all I remember. Something obviously went wrong, so could you stop playing the guessing game and just tell me."

Derek's expression is murderous, and for a second there, Jackson thinks he just made a bad, bad mistake, but then the Alpha just grunts, turning away. "You killed a wolf," he says.

Jackson blinks. "Huh?"

"You killed-"

"No, no, I heard you fine." Jackson pulls his shirt on, getting to his feet unsteadily. "What do you mean I killed a wolf? Like, a werewolf? A person? Are you saying I killed somebody?" His voice starts to get high towards the end there.

Derek shakes his head. "No. Just a regular wolf."

"Oh." Jackson's shoulders relax. Then tense up again. He stares at Derek warily. "Okay then. So...what are you freaking out about?"

Derek growls. "You're supposed to be controlling this thing. You're letting it control you. It's been weeks, Jackson. You're not getting any better. Scott's managed to control his better than you, and he didn't even have my help for most of it."

"Well maybe that's the reason he got better faster," Jackson retorts, the words slipping out of his mouth before his brain can catch up.

Sure enough, two seconds later, and Derek's got him pinned up against the side of a tree, grasping him tight by the neck. "I'm starting to get really tired of your attitude," he snarls.

Jackson's heart is practically beating out of his ribcage, but he manages to keep his voice relatively steady. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to say that. I just don't see what the big deal is. We come out here to hunt things in the woods so we don't hurt anybody in town. You've been teaching me how to catch prey, and that's what I've been doing. So what if it happens to be bigger than a rabbit? I don't get what your beef is here."

Derek's fingers loosen on his throat, but he doesn't let go. "My beef," he says slowly, with barely restrained frustration, "is that people start to notice when wolves show up dead from bite marks made by other wolves. My beef is that wolves don't hunt other wolves, which means that you're not controlling the animal inside you, you're just letting it go wild. You're supposed to reign the rage in, not let it run amok."

"I'm trying!" Jackson growls, irritation finally breaking through. He smacks Derek's hand away, feeling heat rushing throughout his body.

Derek's eyes flash dangerously, and he leans in close. "Try harder," he whispers.

And then he leaves, and Jackson's standing alone in the clearing.

There's a sudden ache in his chest, and he feels like he can't breathe properly, and he's just so broken and useless and God damn alone, and it fucking sucks.

He wants to talk to someone.

The realization hits him like a freight train; it's so foreign, so unlike him, and he's not sure what to do with the feeling. As if operating under the influence of another mind, his fingers scroll through the address book in his cell phone and his thumb presses down on the Call button once he reaches Stiles' name.

"Hello?" the teen mutters sleepily, picking up in the middle of the fourth ring. "Jackson?" His voice is low and scratchy, and Jackson imagines him lying in bed with a hand thrown lazily over his eyes, stretching out under the sheets, muscles flexing with the movement.

What? He shakes his head to clear his brain. "Stiles."

"Yeah, I'm here. What's up?"

Jackson swallows, almost reconsidering, but ultimately blurting out, "I need to talk to you."

"I'm trying," Jackson tells him after a full five minutes of lounging around in Stiles' bedroom in awkward silence. He's sitting criss-crossed on the bed with the comforter tucked back, and Stiles is spinning aimlessly in the desk chair, watching him intently with those wide brown doe-eyes. "I really, really am trying. I don't understand why he has to be a dick about it."

Stiles shrugs. "He's Derek. Being a dick is sort of in his job description. Sort of like being an asshole is in yours. You should totally relate to him." Jackson shoots him a withering glare, and sincerely considers getting up and leaving right away, but Stiles continues, "Besides, you're the Omega. So he's bound to be a little more of a dick to you than the rest of us."

Jackson frowns. "What do you mean, I'm the Omega? What does that mean? What is that?"

Stiles stares. "What, he-" He stops spinning in the chair, jaw dropping slightly, disbelief etched across his face. "He didn't explain any of this to you?"

"We don't really talk much," Jackson says. "Or at all, really. It's mostly just the training stuff. The hunting." His scowl deepens. "Now explain what you meant. What's an Omega?"

Stiles looks uncomfortable. "Well...I'm not positive about this, just so you know. Most of the research I've found on pack dynamics has been about, uh, regular wolves. So I'm not sure if it's the same thing or not. I'd have to look further into it to be-"

"Just tell me," Jackson cuts in, starting to feel nervous.

"Okay..." Stiles sighs. "Every pack has an Omega, which is basically...the bottom of the hierarchy. The low end of the totem pole. And that wolf bears the brunt of the pack's aggression, and serves sort of like a punching bag." Stiles looks apologetic, chewing on his lip.

"So I'm the pack punching bag," Jackson says, deadpan and blank-faced.

Stiles winces. "Not necessarily," he says hastily. "I'm not sure the dynamics are 100% the same with werewolves, and even if they are, there are still cases where Omegas can, like, break free or something. Like they can sometimes run away from the pack if they're getting picked on, or maybe even fight back and get rid of their status."

Jackson bobs his head, not really listening. "I'm the pack punching bag," he repeats.

"Look, I'm sure it's not that bad," Stiles says, not looking sure of any such thing. "I mean, werewolves are people, too. You're human first, and Derek might be a scary motherfucker sometimes, but I don't think he's sadistic. He wouldn't just keep you around to beat you up."

"You haven't been to any of our training sessions," Jackson says wryly.

Stiles studies him thoughtfully, playing with a pen on the desk. "Alright," he says, more to himself than to Jackson. "I'll talk to Derek about it. I promise."

"What?" Jackson looks up quickly. "Don't do that. You'll just make it worse."

"Ah, come on." Stile grins at him. "It'll be fine. I can totally out-glare Derek now. I've been practicing."

Jackson groans, burying his face in his hands. "Jesus. Please don't..."

He hears Stiles scooting closer, the chair wheels squeaking as he rolls on over, and then there's a comforting hand patting him on the top of the head. He looks up, and Stiles is beaming at him reassuringly. "It'll be fine," he says cheerfully, face all wide and earnest. "I swear."

Looking into Stiles' eyes, Jackson's stomach goes through a weird flip-flop motion, and he immediately looks down at the floor, face flushing red.

He immediately comes to the conclusion that he's never, ever going to try and analyze that feeling. At least not beyond acknowledging he's lucky Stiles doesn't have werewolf senses.

No matter how hard he tries, he can't even begin to fathom what the hell Stiles could possibly have said or done to convince Derek to back off. But whatever the kid did seems to be working.

Oh, he and Derek still aren't friends or anything. Jackson doubts they'll ever get to that point. But the ceasefire to hostilities, temporary or not, is most welcome.

Coming down from his wolf form after a hunt these days, Derek will give him the once over, toss him a change of clothes, and announce that he's going to get some rest and Jackson ought to as well. That's it. No more wall-slamming or menacing eyes or thinly veiled death threats. (Well, okay, those still pop up from time to time, but Derek delivers them with a sort of detached indifference that indicates he doesn't really have the inclination to follow through with any of them.) Once, Derek even gives him a compliment.

"You were heading into town," Derek says, "and I thought I was going to have to stop you, but you pulled back on your own. Do you remember that?"

"No," Jackson admits. "It's still fuzzy."

Derek shrugs. "You'll get there. In any case, restraint like that is a good sign of progress. That shows that you're starting to learn from your mistakes." He hesitates. "Good job," he adds, more than a little grudgingly.

Jackson blinks back his surprise, even though he's sure Derek can pick up the change in his scent anyway. "Oh. Thank you."

Derek grunts and jerks his head in a parting nod before lumbering off to do whatever the hell he does all day in that crumby shell of a house. Probably work out and brood at the window or something.

Later, sitting on his bed and finishing up his research paper for English, it occurs to Jackson that he really ought to be more grateful. He pulls out his phone and sends Stiles a quick text:

Thank you.

He gets a reply twenty minutes later:

No problem, buddy.

Danny's boyfriend breaks up with him, totally out of the blue and without a shred of decency, and Danny calls up Jackson for a little one-on-one chat.

"I don't know why I didn't see this coming," he sighs, voice coming in crackly over the reception. "I thought he was a good guy."

"Fuck him," Jackson says, phone propped up between his ear and the couch pillow, eyes trained absently on the evening news scroll playing out on the TV. "I always thought he wasn't good enough for you."

"You only met him, like, one time," Danny says, exasperated and amused, with an underlying tone of gratitude. "You're just saying that to make me feel better."

"Is it working?" Jackson asks, a smile curling at the corner of his mouth.

Danny chuckles at the other end of the line. "A little."

"Good." Jackson shifts on the couch, flipping the TV off with the remote so he can stare at the ceiling in peace. "Don't worry about it. He's a tool. You'll catch somebody on the rebound in no time, I guarantee it. Everybody likes you. All the gay guys are probably waiting in line to take a turn."

"Oh, shut up." Danny snorts. Sighs. "It's not about hooking up. I really thought...I dunno, that it might go somewhere. Not like long term-long term, but, you know...long term. Like college at least."

"You shouldn't pick a school based on a high school fling," Jackson says. "That's just stupid. You'll always end up being disappointed when it falls apart."

The words come out a lot harsher than he intended, and he winces at the long silence after he finishes saying them. This is why he lets Danny do the talking. He sucks at advice.

"Like how Lydia was disappointed?" Danny asks softly.

Jackson feels a flare of irritation, strong enough that he wonders for a second whether or not the wolf is going to rise up, and he snaps the phone shut abruptly, severing the connection.

Danny calls him back twice more, and Jackson doesn't pick up. He'll probably regret that later, but he can't find it in him to care right now.

"I'm not a very good friend," Jackson muses aloud, biting into his sandwich.

They're sitting together on the hood of Stiles' jeep in the parking lot of the school, and technically they ought to be in the cafeteria for lunch period, but it's a beautiful day outside and Jackson doesn't really want to share it trapped under dull fluorescent lights talking to the gang of soul-dead bloodsuckers who call themselves his friends.

"Not that I'm disagreeing with you," Stiles says, boldly reaching over to snag a handful of chips out Jackson's lunch bag, "but what brought this on?"

Jackson shrugs. "Nothing in particular. Except, well, Danny." Turning, he explains, "His boyfriend broke up with him, and I kinda gave him a shitty pep talk."

"Ah." Stiles nods in understanding. "Yeah, I can see that going badly. You're not really one for the inspirational speeches." A thoughtful look crosses his face. "I've always wondered about that," he says, and Jackson somehow knows he's not talking about inspirational speeches. "About you and Danny."

"What about us?" Jackson asks, frowning.

"I dunno." Stiles makes a vague gesture. "You just never really struck me as the type of guy who would be cool with the gay thing. Just surprising, that's all."

Jackson seethes silently. "Why do you assume that just because I'm an asshole, I have to be every kind of asshole?"

Stiles jolts. "No, no, I-"

"You can't think I'm self-involved without also deciding I must be a homophobe?" Jackson interrupts.

Stiles gives him a weird look, unreadable, like he's really, seriously thinking about that. He nods. "You're right. I'm sorry."

"It's okay," Jackson mutters, taking another bite of sandwich.

They're silent for a minute or two, then Stiles grins mischievously, waggling his eyebrows. "So anyway, yeah. You and pep talks equals no bueno. Patch Adams you are not."

Jackson rolls his eyes. "Really? You just made that reference? Horrible movie."

"Hey, he's a real person, too," Stiles says defensively. "Who's to say I wasn't just talking about the guy?" Jackson fixes him with a skeptical look. "Okay, so I wasn't, but I could have been. Don't slam my knowledge of pop culture. I will beat your ass in movie trivia."

"You know," Jackson interjects, resisting the urge to smile at the brunet's pointless tangent, "for all the big talk you gave me about wanting to discuss stuff, you seem to spend most of our conversations trailing off into non sequiturs."

"Ooh, big words," Stiles mocks playfully, leaning over and taking a huge bite out of Jackson's sandwich. Which, seriously? Not cool.

Or at least, it shouldn't be. Instead, it makes Jackson's heart do that pitter-patter thing that he's been firmly disregarding for the past several weeks. A task which has proved somewhat difficult seeing as he's been compelled on more than one occasion to call the doe-eyed boy for a quick chat.

Not paying any mind to the expression on Jackson's face, Stiles swallows the mouthful and continues, "I just like to make jokes to keep the mood light. Surely you've figured that out about me by now?" Jackson grunts in agreement, finishing off the rest of his lunch before Stiles can steal anything else. "I can be serious," Stiles adds after a few minutes. "I really can. If you want to have that kind of talk, I'm definitely there for you."

Jackson pauses in the middle of chewing. Swallows.

"I'll be sure to let you know," he says.

"Can't you talk to her?" Allison begs, voice pleading and frustrated. "This is getting really unbearable."

"I already tried that," Jackson replies, bored. "She doesn't want to talk to me anymore." Frowning at her, he adds, "And I'm so sorry my issues with Lydia have had such a negative influence on your life. How inconsiderate of me."

"It's not just her," Allison says, ignoring him. "It's Scott, too."

"Scott?" Jackson folds his arms, leaning against the locker and hoping for this conversation to be over with as quickly as possible. "What are you talking about? He and I were never friends."

"But you could at least be civil," she insists, scowling right back at him. "Every time you two pass in the hall, I think one of you is going to take a swing at the other. Do you even realize how exhausting it is to be friends with two people who can't stand each other? Make that three, if we're counting Lydia."

"We're not," Jackson cuts in. "And even if we were, I don't see how this is any of your business."

Allison's expression softens, and she reaches out to place a gentle hand on his arm. "You're my friend," she says kindly. "And so is Lydia. And Scott's my boyfriend. I'm not asking you to all be chummy together or anything, but I really think you'd all be happier if you just tried to get along." She looks around to make sure no one's listening, then leans in and whispers, "I know things are hard for you now, adjusting to the whole werewolf thing, but I'm just trying to look out for you."

Jackson sucks in a sharp breath. "You and I," he says, pointing between Allison's chest and his own for emphasis, "only hung out together because of Lydia. And the only reason you're talking to me now is because you seriously believe in this bullshit everybody-can-get-along mentality, and you think you can be loyal to Lydia, and to me, and to Scott all at the same time. You can't. Not when being loyal to one of us directly contradicts being loyal to someone else. So just do the math: Scott and Lydia get along fine, and I don't get along with either of them. Stick with them. You'll be better for it."

Allison stares at him like he's just slapped her. After a moment of shock, her face morphs into an expression of anger. "You," she spits, "are a fucking asshole. You know that?"

He doesn't say anything in return as he watches her stomp away, but his mind helpfully supplies I never claimed to be anything else.

There are days, looking in the bathroom mirror after his morning shower, when he can barely restrain himself from wolfing out and smashing the glass to pieces with his bare hands. He's not sure how he was ever able to look at his reflection and feel anything other than hatred and self-loathing.

The image is shiny, pristine. Even before the bite, his body was in top-notch shape, but now. He looks unreal, carved from the finest alabaster stone. He's perfection, beautiful.

Photoshopped. Fake. A hollow shell.

A lie. Ugly.

Empty.

The only way he can stand it all is to mentally direct some of the anger back on his admirers, back on the people who worship him at school, who slavishly heed his every whim just for a chance at being associated with his coolness. Fucking leeches. They're disgusting, and he hates them. Hates them with every fiber of his being.

But not as much as himself.

No one's as worthy of contempt as himself.

Someone blows up Jackson's Porsche.

It's the talk of the town, the idle gossip of housewives and businessmen and students with nothing better to do than sit around and laugh about the undoubtedly well-deserved destruction of spoiled little rich boys' property. The recent murders are old news; now, apparently, is the time for exploding cars.

It lasts for about a week: kids staring at him in the hall when they think he isn't looking, covering their mouths with their hands and laughing amongst themselves.

Stupid rich brat, he imagines them saying. Got what he deserved.

Some of the mocking titters are the voices of his admirers, his so-called friends. He ought to feel offended, but it's actually sort of vindicating. It just a confirmation of what he's known all along: no one really loves him. They just love the idea of him, the fantasy jock. Jackson the lacrosse captain, Jackson the star player. That's the guy they love.

Jackson the teenage werewolf in over his head with increasingly violent tendencies? Who gives a shit about him?

"You should start coming to pack meetings," Derek tells him, jumping in through the window without warning. Jackson considers it a win that he doesn't even flinch. At this point, he just expects overgrown werewolves with scary sharp teeth to come leaping into his bedroom at any given time. It's the norm.

"You have pack meetings?" he asks, not bothering to disguise his amusement with the self-seriousness of the term.

"Yes," Derek answers shortly, eyes narrowing in challenge, silently daring the younger boy to get snarky.

"Okay." Jackson's not going to push his luck. Whatever Stiles said or did is working wonders between him and Derek, but he's not going to poke the sleeping beast. "Okay, so who exactly shows up for these meetings? You and Scott? Don't take this the wrong way, but that doesn't sound like my idea of a good time. And two people hardly qualify as a pack."

"Three people," Derek says icily. "Scott and Stiles and myself. And then there's you. So four people. And I'm going to be expanding eventually. As soon as I find someone worthy of adding to the fold."

Something occurs to Jackson, and he voices it without letting it pass through the filter between his brain and his mouth. "You and Scott are talking again?"

Derek raises an eyebrow. "Again? Were we ever not?"

Jackson frowns, confused. "Haven't you guys been fighting ever since...you know. Your uncle and everything."

Derek's lip curls. "He was...upset with me," he says tonelessly. "But we never cut off communication." He adds, "Not all of us hold on to our petty differences."

He says it mildly, but it still stings, and it's only the dangerous smirk on Derek's face that keeps Jackson from wolfing out and trying to tear his stomach open.

"Is Scott okay with me being there?" he asks, keeping his pulse in check as best he can.

Derek nods readily. "He'll be civil."

Jackson thinks about it, ponders it. "Alright," he says. "I'll go, if that's what you want."

"What I want has nothing to do with it," Derek says, already turning to climb back out through the window. "Stiles was the one who wanted you to be there."

And then he's gone, and Jackson's really glad he is because that way, there's no one around to hear the way his heart stutters as it fills up with warmth.

God, how aggravating that has been. It's stupid, is what it is. It's stupid to like someone just because smile at you and mean it, stupid to nurse a crush just because someone's nice to you without a hidden agenda attached.

He pushes those thoughts aside, rolling over on his bed to grab his laptop out of his backpack.

What he needs right now is a distraction.

Anything other than soft, pale skin and bright brown eyes.

"I heard about you and Allison," Stiles says, leaning down to pat Ben's head and let the dog lick his cheek in greeting.

"Doesn't anybody start conversations with hello anymore?" Jackson quips, but there's no heat behind it. He waves Stiles in through the door and guides him to the kitchen, popping open the refrigerator to search for a soda. "Want one?"

"Nah," Stiles yawns, plopping down in an armchair by the fireplace, taking in the surroundings with an air of detached interest. "I heard about you and Allison," he repeats pointedly.

Jackson groans. "I thought the point of this was to share things I want to talk about." He sighs at Stiles' steady gaze, quietly relenting. "What about it?" he asks. "What's there to say?"

"We don't have to talk about it if you don't want to," Stiles says, shrugs. "I was just saying that I heard. So in case you did want to talk..."

Jackson chews on his lip, watching Stiles stroke his dog's ears. "It's better this way," he says after a while, and even he's not entirely sure what he's referring to.

Stiles seems to understand anyway. At least he's nodding like he understands, fixing Jackson with that uncommon, piercing stare that makes him feel like his soul is being scanned. "You didn't have to do that," he says softly.

"She's better off," Jackson says, and he really doesn't want to talk about this anymore. At all.

But Stiles won't quit. "Being an asshole to protect people from yourself because you're convinced you're an asshole who will hurt them anyway is kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, dude." The tone is light, almost teasing, but so very soft and sincere, and Stiles' smiles is kind. Sad, even.

Jackson swallows. "I don't want to talk about it."

Stiles nods. "Okay." He shifts in the chair, scratches the dog's head, stands. "Wanna play video games or something? Go on a walk?"

"A walk sounds good," Jackson breathes, relieved.

Stiles bounds up and heads for the side door, flashing him a bright grin as he passes. Jackson's breath hitches in his chest, and he freezes for a moment before following.

It's probably nothing, but he's taken notice of the way he can get Stiles to shut up with a quick word. Which should be a piece of non-information, but it's not. The boy's regularly a ceaseless outflow of chatter - about school, about the pack, about something he read on the internet, whatever - and the fact that Jackson can make him be quiet for even a few minutes means something. It has to.

Or maybe, he decides later when they're walking side by side down the street with hands shoved in their pockets and eyes cast down at the ground beneath them, maybe that's just wishful thinking.

There's a nagging in his mind, an itch he cannot scratch.

It's always present, paddling around in the depths of his subconscious, occasionally swimming to the surface of his thoughts to do its utmost to drive him mad. He can feel it during the pack meetings, when he supposed to be listening to Derek explain why they have to move the location of the hunting grounds further into the woods, or when he ought to be keeping close watch on the way Scott is carefully ignoring his existence.

Whatever this thing is - this thing he has with Stiles - it's blossomed into a whole other animal, and it's something he's terrifyingly certain he won't be able to keep a lid on for much longer. The wolf demands further action.

Don't be stupid, he tells it weakly. Don't ruin the one good thing you have left in your life.

The wolf replies Want. Have Take.

He can't give in, won't give in, and he focuses the brunt of his growing irritation inward.

He wakes up one morning and finally allows himself to engage in self-pleasure, mind drifting inevitably to wide brown eyes and soft lips, and when he steps out of the shower, he smashes that mirror to bits, claws coming out in full, slashing away at the glass, nails screeching in his eardrums as they rake against the glimmering panes, dragging deep gashes along the surface, cracks spidering out from every which way. The whole structure collapses into nothing, falling to pieces in the bathroom sink, and his hands drip with blood - his own - as he stares at the distortion of his reflection in the last remaining chunk hanging on the wall.

Delicately, he peels it off, plucking it from its place and dropping it into the pile with the rest.

After school, his parents confront him about it, and he just shrugs and says, "Accident."

"Did you really love her?" he asks.

It's not the question he wants to ask. He'd rather go with something like Why are you being so nice to me? or What are you getting out of this friendship? or What would you do if I kissed you right now?

But the question he voices is the safest one, and it's something he has to know, something that could potentially clear the mess of cobwebs in his brain, set his hormones back on track, shake himself into reason. That, and he's genuinely curious.

"Who?" Stiles asks, lazing beside him, staring up at the stars. "Lydia?"

They're at Stiles house, lying flat against the roof under the night sky, watching for comets and constellations and whatever else there is to spy in the blackness. Jackson really ought to be getting home by now, and his parents are probably worried about him, but he can't bring himself to get up and go. He wants to lie here forever.

"Yeah," he says. "Was it just a crush, or...you know. Did you love her?"

He can feel Stiles looking at him, but he's not sure he wants to see what's on his face. He can't look, he's too afraid.

He's a coward, even now.

"I don't know," Stiles breathes, and Jackson hears his body shift as he returns to stargazing. "Yes. Maybe. I guess I did. As much as a teenage boy can be in love with a girl who has never, will never return his affections." He sighs, and Jackson feels an irrational pang of jealousy - which, how fucked up is that? - and he pushes it away, swallows it down. "I liked the idea of being the only person who could see her for who she really was, that I could see how smart she was, and how kindhearted. And I wanted her to see that I saw that, and maybe then she would..." He trails off.

"Yeah?" Jackson prompts softly, summoning up his courage and turning on his side.

Stiles' expression is distant, contemplative. The moon is shining in his eyes. "I told her at formal," he says. "I let her see, and she saw. And she still didn't care." He bites his lip. "Maybe she doesn't see me as a creepy loser anymore, and maybe she respects me a little bit. But that's it. That's all I've got to show for my efforts." He tilts his head, looks at Jackson. His lips twist in a rueful smile. "It's my own fault, really. Sort of pathetic. I should have known better. People like who they like. You can't control stuff like that."

Don't I know it, Jackson thinks, but says, "It's not your fault. And it's not pathetic." He hesitates, mouth feeling dry all of the sudden. "It's actually sort of sweet, I think."

Stiles' eyes widen in surprise, and there's pause, and Jackson is terrified for a moment that he's given too much away But then the boy just says, "I never hated you, you know. I thought you were a dick and a bully and I never really imagined we'd be friends some day. But I never hated you." He turns on his side, and now Jackson is uncomfortably aware that they're facing each other, lying side by side on the roof in the dark. "I always knew you were compensating for something," Stiles whispers, and Jackson stiffens reflexively. "I always knew you weren't really like that. The way you let people see you. I always knew there was more."

It's as good a time as any, if Jackson's going to be bold, if he's not going to chicken out, to lean over and close the distance between them. But instead, he says, "I don't want to talk about this."

And Stiles smiles at him in that infuriatingly understanding sort of way, and says, "We're going to. Eventually. I can tell you want to."

"I don't," Jackson replies, but it's an obvious lie even to his own ears.

"You do," Stiles says, and he rolls over on his back, shutting his eyes and stretching with a yawn. "You do, and when you're ready, I'll be here."

Jackson screws his eyes shut, steadying his breathing. "I have to go home," he murmurs.

In retrospect, he has to admit it's a real dick move. He doesn't mean for it to be, he's not thinking of it that way at the time. But it's totally unacceptable. And it demonstrates how very much he doesn't deserve Danny as a friend.

"Would you be willing to try something with me?" he asks, and Danny just frowns, setting down his controller, mouth drawing into a thin line.

"That depends," he says. "What are you referring to?"

Jackson squirms uncomfortably. "It's not a big deal or anything," he says hastily, looking down at his hands, picking at his nails in an uncommon gesture of anxiety. "I just thought, you know, if I had to ask someone for something like this, it might as well be..."

Danny's mouth draws even thinner, and Jackson starts to think maybe this was a really bad idea. "What?" Danny says shortly, a lingering warning in his voice.

A warning Jackson stupidly ignores. "I was thinking maybe...you and I could like...fool around a little."

Danny stares. No expression.

Good sign. "Not like romantically or anything," Jackson is quick to explain. "There's just this guy and - you don't know him - uh, yeah. I sort of, maybe might have...you know. Feelings. Or whatever. And I figured...since you..."

He trails off and Danny fills in, "Since I'm gay." Totally deadpan. The line of his mouth is so thin, Jackson can barely see it anymore.

"Yeah." Jackson flushes red. "Yeah, I thought you might..."

"Might what?" Danny asks, ice cold. "You thought I might what? Might fuck around with you as an experiment? See if you really swing both ways or if it's just a fluke?"

That's not quite it, but it's close enough to make Jackson blush even harder and cough into the hem of his sleeve. "Like I said, it's not a big deal or anything," he mumbles. "If you don't want to, you don't have to..."

"Believe me, I don't need you to tell me that," Danny replies. He doesn't sound angry anymore, just exhausted. Fed up. "And it is a big deal. It..." His voice fades into a low murmur, and he reaches up to pinch the bridge of his nose, heaving out a heavy sigh, a noise far too old and weary to come out of a high school student. "Jesus, Jackson."

"I'm sorry," he throws in, hoping to put a stop to this without further discussion. "I shouldn't have asked. It won't happen again."

Danny looks up, jaw set grimly. "You're right, you shouldn't have. And you won't." He stands, gathering up his things into his book bag.

Panicking, Jackson stands up too, instinctively moving in front of the door to block the exit. "Wait, wait. Where...?" He swallows. "I'm sorry."

Danny just looks at him, and Jackson's stomach lurches at the expression on his face. It's sympathetic. Pitying. He hates it.

"I know you are," Danny says. "But I think we need..." He hesitates, chewing on his lip, and Jackson's heart is pounding in his chest.

Please don't let this be happening. Not this.

"I just think we need to spend some time hanging out with other people," Danny finishes. "You're not in a good place right now, and you're not letting me help you, even though I've been trying really hard. I've been trying hard for years." He huffs out a humorless chuckle. "Some of it's just your personality, I know. It's just who you are, and I've come to terms with that." He rubs his forehead. "But...I mean, fuck, Jackson..."

"I'm really, really sorry," Jackson says, hating the way his voice goes high-pitched at the end. "I didn't think it was a big deal."

Danny smiles ruefully. "Yeah, I know. And that's why it is." He sucks in a shaky breath, and Jackson feels a sharp pang when he sees a droplet roll down Danny's cheek. "I'm supposed to be your best friend, Jackson. The fact that you would ask me something like that, like it's nothing, like our friendship doesn't even matter..."

"I didn't mean it like that," Jackson cuts in, trying to backpedal as quickly as he can. "I didn't mean to make it sound cheap, like I'm using you or something. I swear, I-"

Danny holds up a hand, effectively silencing him. "I'm not giving up on you or anything," he says, slowly reaching out to move Jackson out of the way. "I just can't deal with this right now. I've got my own problems, and...I dunno. I guess I've just reached the point where I want someone who can listen to me and care."

"I do care," Jackson says, mouth dry, throat choked. "I do."

Danny moves past him, glancing back through the doorway. "I'll call you sometime," he mumbles. "Or you call me. When you've grown a little bit."

And then he's gone.

Jackson stands rigid in the middle of his bedroom. Part of him wants to cry, but he mostly just feels numb. All the weight of everything he hates in himself bears down on him with razor teeth and glistening claws, and before he even realizes what he's doing, he's dialing Stiles' number.

The phone picks up after two rings.

"Hello?" Stiles' voice is clear, awake. "Jackson?"

"Stiles," Jackson mumbles, voice thick with emotion.

There's a long pause. "Are you okay? Did something happen?"

"No," Jackson answers, backing up against the wall and sliding to the floor. His heartbeat has slowed down a little, but the tightness in his chest just won't go away. He realizes that Stiles actually asked two questions, so he clarifies, "No, I'm not okay. I'm really not."

He hears a muffled sound on the other end of the line, a quiet intake of breath. "Do you want me to come over?" Stiles' tone is gentle, soothing. It's mature in a way that Jackson hadn't realized Stiles could even be until these past several weeks.

It has a strange, calming effect on him, and he can feel the knot inside him loosening slowly, ebbing away. "No," he says, leaning over to curl up on the floor, phone pinned between his shoulder and his chin with the speaker up against his ear. "No, you don't need to do that."

Another pause. "Are you sure?"

Jackson breathes heavily, closing his eyes. "Yes."

"Okay. Do you...just wanna talk on the phone?"

Jackson shakes his head tiredly, even though Stiles isn't there to see it. "No. Just...just wanna hear the-"

He cuts off. He was about to say, Just wanna hear the sound of your voice. And there really isn't any other way for Stiles to interpret something like that apart from exactly what it means.

Somehow, the brunet seems to understand anyway, even without Jackson completing his thought. "Alright then. I'll just talk about...whatever. And you can talk too, if you want."

Jackson smiles, biting his lip. "Sounds good."

Stiles drones on, talking about anything and everything, animatedly and enthusiastic. Jackson listens quietly, doesn't say a word, and he eventually falls asleep to the sound of Stiles' voice.

When he wakes in the morning and checks the call length in the recent history, he sees that Stiles stayed on the line for a full hour after he passed out.

Life now is like drifting through a vacuum.

He sees people, usually the same people, every single day at the same time. Like clockwork. His parents are up and dressed for work when he comes downstairs in the morning; his mother always standing at the counter with her hair done up, rapping her fingernails against the side of the refrigerator while she waits on the coffeemaker, and his father always sitting in his favorite armchair, newspaper unfurled and held up in front of his face like a shield from conversation. They smile at him as he nods goodbye - the same smile, warm and parental - and they tell him in unison to have a good day at school.

His friends - his acquaintances - at school are no different. The same handshake greetings, the same dumb stories about girls and sports and evil teachers, the same tired routine.

It's been this way, he realizes, for years.

Only now, he doesn't have Lydia. Or Danny. Not a single person who could give a damn whether or not he was alive or dead. Other than out of obligation.

Just Stiles. And Jackson still hasn't figured out what he's getting out of this thing they have. This thing he can't even begin to understand.

But, whatever the reason the kid has for spending his free time with a fuck-up like him, Jackson's not going to complain. He'll take what he can get. This is all he has left.

"The carnival's in town this weekend," he says, sidling up to Stiles by the lockers after lunch, keeping an eye out to make sure Scott's nowhere near by.

Stiles raises an eyebrow. "Uh huh," he says. Neutrally. No tone whatsoever.

Jackson swallows. "Yeah. So, I was thinking about going. Maybe Friday. Or Saturday. And I was wondering if maybe you'd..." He peters out towards the end of the sentence, unable to finish.

Fucking coward, he berates himself internally.

"If I'd...?" Stiles prompts, not cruelly, but there's a hint of amusement hidden behind the surface curiosity. Bastard. He's going to make him say it.

Steeling himself for rejection, Jackson grits out, "If you'd like to come. With me. One of those days. To the carnival."

Stiles beams. "Sure. Friday's good. Meet at my house or yours?"

Jackson is sure the relief is evident on his face, but he can't be bothered to care at the moment. "I'll pick you up, if that's fine?"

"Yep. Let's say seven." Stiles closes his locker door and claps Jackson on the shoulder affectionately. "See you then."

"Yeah," Jackson calls after him. "Yeah," he murmurs to himself after the boy's gone.

The animatronic gears of the funhouse skeletons whir as the plastic macabre puppets pop out from the walls and tumble down on strings from trapdoors in the ceiling. Neon lights blow in their fluorescent bars, illuminating Stiles' face in the darkness as they walk together through the narrow hallways.

He's beautiful, Jackson thinks, watching Stiles laugh as a demonic clown comes to life, waving a rubber knife in his direction. There's something raw and wonderful and real about this kid, and Jackson's not sure how he never managed to see it until now. He doesn't know how he could have missed it, or how Stiles isn't the most sought after guy in school. If people took the time to look around them, they would surely see what he sees now.

They exit through the smoke machines and spill out into the grassy lawn, Stiles pointing excitedly at the roller coaster, grabbing Jackson's wrist and dragging him along to ride after ride. The smell of cotton candy and stale popcorn permeates the chill of the field, and Jackson seeks to pick out Stiles' scent over the noxious fumes of the fun fair. When he catches it at last, it's like a warm silk blanket wrapping around his neck and sliding down to bring forth a flush in the skin of his chest. It's the smell he associates with everything good and worthwhile. Everything he doesn't deserve.

Stiles drags him through the dissipating crowd as the night wears on, further towards the center of the circus, towards the big striped tent. Jackson's heart twists in his chest, and he stops dead, Stiles' fingers slipping away from his wrist as the boy takes a few extra steps, pausing only when he registers the loss of contact. He turns back, gaze questioning but smile still in place.

"What's wrong?" he asks. "There's a show in the tent."

Jackson takes a step back jerkily. "Let's do something else," he says shortly.

Stiles grins at him, rubbing his hands together in the cold and bringing them up to his mouth to breathe warmth into his cupped palms. "Come on," he begs. "It's the freak-show. It'll be fun."

"No." Jackson shakes his head. "I don't want to."

Stiles gives him a funny look, lip curling at the side. "You're not afraid of them, are you?" he queries, voice half-teasing. Jackson doesn't answer, just clenches his jaw tight, looking away. Stiles' smile fades. "Alright," he says. "We'll do something else."

Just like that. Lets it drop. He doesn't even sound pitying. Doesn't even ask for a reason.

They get candy apples, a sugary mess dipped in a metal vat of warm caramel, and they're sticky and gross, and Jackson throws his away after a couple of bites. He hates the taste, but he loves the way it smells on Stiles' breath.

The loudspeakers blare, and a nasally voice announces that it's an hour to closing. They decide to finish out the evening on the Ferris wheel.

Most of the people have gone by now, and as the metalworks being to spin their glorious arch, Jackson can see the rows and rows of twin headlights blinking into existence in the parking lot as the sound of revving engines fade off down the forest road. The canopy of the vast expanse of trees is visible from the top, and they take in the wonder of the quiet night as the great wheel chinks along, topsy-turvy music bleating out from the jukebox down near the outhouse several yards over. On the final round, the spinning stops abruptly, jerking to an unsteady halt. There's a momentary pause, and then the operator down below is announcing that the malfunction is nothing to worry about and the ride will start up again in no time at all.

Stiles and Jackson look at each other, sitting side by side at the top of the wheel in the cramped cable car, and Stiles' face looks positively ethereal in the purple and green neon lights flashing up from the mechanical arm. It's as good a moment as any, if Jackson weren't a coward, and for a second there, he's really tempted to take the chance.

But it's something he can't justify to himself. And this friendship - or whatever it is they have - isn't worth throwing away. So he lets his eyes linger for a brief stretch on the soft curve of Stiles' lips, but he doesn't close the distance.

It's something he can never have.

Looking up into Stiles' eyes, his heart skips a beat when the boy flashes him a wide, sincere smile, full of affection and fun and good nature.

It's somehow simultaneously the happiest and worst moment of his life.

If it were up to Jackson, that would be the end of it. The anticlimax to the stupid romance that wasn't.

He's prepared for whatever comes next, resigned himself to a fate of loneliness, of routine.

But Stiles doesn't let it drop. Not this time.

It's the middle of the afternoon, and Jackson's out in the backyard playing with Ben. His parents are away for the weekend, and he's left alone to entertain himself. There are a few parties he's scheduled to attend, but he's tossed away the invitations already. Hate himself though he may, he's not masochistic enough to put himself through that shit anymore.

The sky is dark with rain clouds, and there's thunder in the distance, but Jackson doesn't pay any mind. The dog is whimpering, clearly wanting to go inside, but he still fetches the bone when Jackson throws it.

Even with his werewolf senses, he's too absorbed in his thoughts to hear Stiles approaching from behind.

"I talked to Danny."

Jackson turns, and there he is. Just standing there with his hands in his pockets, expression neutral and open, eyes wide and curious. Jackson shrugs. "Didn't know you two were buddies now."

Stiles shrugs back. "We talk sometimes." He blinks a few times. "So...I talked to him."

Jackson nods. "Heard you the first time, Stilinski."

And then there's a hand on his shoulder, and he stiffens, nervous. Stiles is too damn close. "Don't you think we're past the last names bullshit?" Stiles asks softly.

Jackson turns to face him, surreptitiously peeling away from the touch. "Alright," he says. "I heard you the first time, Stiles. You talked to Danny." He waves an arm meaninglessly. "Okay."

Stiles looks sad. "I think we need to have that talk now," he says. "That one we should have been having from the beginning."

"I told you," Jackson says, hating himself for pushing Stiles away, but finding himself unable to stop, "I will tell you if and when I need to talk about stuff."

"Yeah, but you lied." Stiles' gaze is searching, piercing. Those eyes. "You've needed to talk for a long time now, but you haven't been. You've been dancing around the subject, focusing on all the little things instead of the big picture. I let you have your space because I figured you'd get around to it eventually, but I can't wait anymore. I'm afraid you might seriously hurt yourself."

"What the hell are you talking about?" Jackson scoffs, hoping to sound angry but probably coming off as scared.

"Lydia. And Allison. And Danny. And you asking for the bite. You're creating problems for yourself. You're trying to throw up roadblocks, trying to make things harder for yourself. You're pushing away people who care about you." Stiles cocks his head to the side. "I want you to tell me why."

Jackson fumes silently, hands balling into fists at his sides. "It's none of your fucking business!" he snaps, wolf starting to show. He can feel his eyes burning hot.

Stiles doesn't flinch. He actually steps closer. "I think it is," he says calmly, and the fact that he's face-to-face with a werewolf and not afraid at alljust makes Jackson angrier.

"Oh yeah?" he snarls. "And why's that?"

Stiles just looks at him. Looks at him. "You know," he answers, voice barely more than a whisper.

And Jackson does know. And he can feel his blood run cold and his palms start to sweat because, fuck, Stiles knows, too. Face flushing with embarrassment and shame, he steps away, ducking his head.

"What do you want me to say?" he yells, but it's clear to both of them that the rage is directed inward. "Huh? That my life is fucking empty and meaningless, and everything I do and say and stand for makes me God damn sick to my stomach? That I broke the mirror in my bathroom because the sight of my own reflection makes me want to slit my wrists open, but I can't because I'm a fucking werewolf and that shit will just heal up? That I'm the one who blew up my car because it's just another stupid piece of trash my parents bought to try and convince me that they really,really love me? You want me to tell you, in intricate fucking detail, how much I hate myself? Will that help? Will that make it any better, just saying that shit out loud?"

He's shivering from adrenaline and pent-up frustration, and his voice is hoarse by the end of his rant, tears he doesn't remember shedding streaming hot down the front of his face.

Stiles swallows, like there's a lump in his throat, and there are tears in his eyes as well, expression anguished. But he doesn't step forward, doesn't try to hug Jackson and tell him everything's okay. Instead he says, in a voice surprisingly steady, "No, it doesn't make it better. But yes, I think it's good for you to say all of that. To tell someone." He takes a step closer, unperturbed by Jackson's counteraction of taking a step further back. "I also think you should tell me the rest."

Jackson chokes out a sort of strangled sob. "What else?" he spits bitterly, knees wobbling weakly. "What more is there to say? My bullshit problems aren't even that interesting. So I hate myself. So I need to be the best at everything I can because I feel worthless otherwise. So what? A lot of kids go through that same shit."

Stiles shakes his head. "That's not it. Tell me about the bite. Why did you ask for it?"

He keeps moving forward, and Jackson keeps backing away. "Does it matter?" Jackson asks, nausea hitting him fast and strong.

"Yes. Of course it does. And don't tell me it's because you wanted to be special. Tell me the truth."

Jackson opens and closes his mouth. He can't speak.

Stiles eyes are fucking alive. "Tell me why," he whispers.

Jackson can't move away any further. His back is pressed against the wall of the doghouse. Water taps down on the shingles, then off the top of his head. It's raining.

Jackson makes a soft whimper. "I wanted to be real," he says, hardly audible, but he knows Stiles can hear. "I wanted to be something other than me. Anything other than me. I thought I could change." He swallows. "And if it killed me...then that wouldn't be so bad either."

Stiles looks pained. His hand comes up like he's going to touch Jackson's cheek, but Jackson flinches and the hand drops away as quickly as it was raised.

The rain is coming down hard now. Ben scampers away across the muddy yard, bounding up the back steps and hiding under the porch swing for shelter. Jackson feels wet and cold, and he just wants to go inside and curl up and die.

"That would have been bad," Stiles murmurs, eyes not quite meeting Jackson's. "If you'd died."

Jackson's chest feels tight. He coughs. "Why are you doing this to me?" he asks, and he wishes he could muster up some more anger, but he's just totally drained at this point. He's all washed out. "What do you want from me?"

And Stiles does meet his gaze now. "The same thing you want from me."

Jackson's heart stutters. He shakes his head. "That's not true. You don't know that. You don't know what I want."

Stiles mouth turns upward. A quiet smile. The one he saves just for Jackson. "You really don't see?" he murmurs.

And, God. Jackson has to get out of there. He moves to the left, tries to slide around the doghouse to run for the woods, but he only gets a couple of steps before his knee buckles out from under him, a sharp pain spiking up through the bottom of his leg. He cries out and falls down. His sandal falls off, and he can see the source of the shock. It's the loose screw, lying innocently on the grass, crimson smudges lodged inside the little rivets.

Jackson's werewolf powers are kicking in, the hole in his foot is healing already, but the pain is still there. The rain is washing away the blood, but the hurt remains. Seconds later and the cut is gone, not even leaving a scar in its trace. But Jackson's still broken, lying on the ground trembling, and he can't even gather the strength to wipe away the tears flowing freely now.

Stiles is kneeling at his side, hands gripping his shoulders tightly, looking into his eyes with something Jackson doesn't dare to define, can't bring himself to assume for fear of being mistaken.

"You're not the only one, you know," Stiles tells him, voice wrecked, like he's torn between affectionate amusement and empathetic sorrow. It makes for a weird combination. "Life's not easy on any of us. You wanna talk inadequacy issues? You're looking at the champ. Look at Scott, at Derek, at you. I spend all of my time hanging out with people who are way out of my league in so many different ways, and on top of that, I'm the only human associated with the pack. Other than Allison, I guess. And she's hot, too. And she knows how to shoot a fucking bow-and-arrow."

Jackson snorts, chest heaving. "You're not seriously complaining about your looks, are you?" he mutters. "Do you even see yourself?"

Stiles pauses at that, but just for a moment, and then he's continuing, "I basically live by myself, seeing as my Dad barely has time for me, even though he's trying, and I don't have a Mom anymore. Add that to the fact that I'm just about at the bottom of the social ladder at school, and you've got yourself a perfect recipe for loneliness. It's tough. I get it." He quirks a twisted smile. "I know our situations look like polar opposites at first, but I really think we're more alike than you believe. We just handle our insecurities differently."

Jackson closes his eyes, letting his head fall back into the mud and the grass, hoping for the rain to wash him away. "You don't know what I want from you," he whispers. "You can't possibly know."

He feels a tingling sensation, and when he opens his eyes, Stiles' hand is on his cheek. That special smile twitching at his lips once more. "I know," he insists. "Of course I know." Jackson hears the tortured sound of his voice and notices that Stiles is crying, too, quietly. "Did you really think I wanted to talk to you all this time just because I'm a 'nice guy' or something?"

Jackson's brow furrows. He doesn't dare to hope. "But...aren't you?"

Stiles laughs. "I try to be. Most of the time." His fingers slide away from Jackson's skin, reaching up to brush back his hair, threading through the wet strands with care. "You're not a project," he says. "You're not a charity case. I'm doing this as much for me as for you. And I'm not going to let you destroy yourself. Mostly for selfish reasons."

Jackson's heart is running wild inside his ribcage. "Don't do this," he mumbles. "I'm not worth it."

"Yeah, probably not," Stiles agrees teasingly. "But I'm sixteen and stupid, and if I'm going to make one big mistake, I'll happily go with this one." His eyes crinkle when his grin widens. "And regardless of what you think, I don't believe it's a mistake." He withdraws the lingering touch, and moves to place his hands on either side of Jackson's head. Looking down, he asks, "Can you promise me you won't give up on yourself?"

Jackson swallows, looking up with wide eyes. "I don't know," he answers honestly.

Stiles thinks for a second. "Well, can you promise me you'll let me try to help you with that?"

Jackson thinks. Nods.

Stiles nods back. "Okay," he says, and Jackson can hear his heart beating like a jackrabbit. "Good."

Jackson's last coherent thought as soft lips press down against his own is to realize that for the first time in what feels like years, he's actually okay with being alive.

Site for original post: http:/ archiveofourown. Org / works /381296

P.S. I giver credit to the original author for doing such a great job with this master piece