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The Shadows Of Regret

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It Lives; In The Endless Summer Woods.

The Shadows Of Regret.

1.

A Day Like Any Other.

Taylor gazed into the fire before him, lost within its flickering, as fire sprites danced within the flames. He jumped in surprise, when a pair of arms wrapped around his waist, a pair of legs settling either side of him, as Jake rested his head on his shoulder. "You know, we can always just go to bed if you're already spacin' out..." He murmured, as he nuzzled Taylor's cheek affectionately. "I got way better ways of keepin' ya entertained than Mike's dodgy camp o' horrors." He added, his lips brushing against Taylors throat.

Taylor smiled, curling his hands over Jake's before his chest and leaning back against his lover, unsubtly arching his neck for him. "I've been looking forward to tonight," he said fondly, his nose grazing the pilots jaw briefly. "We've been working on the house so much, we haven't seen anyone for ages. It'll be good for us to catch up." He hummed warmly, pressing a kiss to Jake's cheek, only for the pilot to twist and capture them in a proper kiss. "You're insatiable." Taylor giggled sappily, as Jake released him to scratch light kisses along his jaw.

"Hmm, married to a hot piece of ass like this..." Jake muttered, rocking his hips gently to Taylors ass for emphasis, as he huffed in quiet amusement. "Be hard to be anythin' but." He chuckled, as Taylor laughed fondly.

"The gruff Jake McKenzie, reduced to a sappy, sentimental romantic..." He snickered, as Jake narrowed his eyes and nipped his collarbone playfully. "The world really has ended." He said, pausing as his amusement abruptly faded, swallowed by a heavy sense of guilt.

"Hey." Jake said, his arms tightening around Taylor in a protective cocoon, as if he thought he might keep the bad thoughts from his husbands mind. "Stop it. Ya couldn'ta done anythin' else, Boy Scout."

"I could've sent you all home." Taylor whispered, his head rolling across Jake's shoulder as he swallowed heavily and shook his head, gazing up at the slowly awakening stars above them. "I could've given you your lives back, your families... Craig's little brother, Sean's mom, your sister..." He paused, drawing in a shuddering breath as he leaned away from Jake to peer at him with obvious confusion. "How do you not hate me for stealing that from you?"

"Taylor, if you didn't exist, we never would've survived in the first place..." Jake explained quietly, tickling Taylors shoulder with affectionate squeezes. "Those things would've never even been an option without ya... And I think we all agree, nobody should be sacrificin' themselves anymore. We've all been there, one point or another... Now we're all livin' together peacefully. We said goodbye to our pasts, Boy Scout. Now, let us live in our present, without feelin' bad about what might've been." He said, nuzzling his jaw softly. "I can always distract ya, if need be... Gimme the word and we can go back to the suite, and I'll spend all night distractin' ya from anythin' ya wan-"

"You are a distraction, Grandpa." Mike snorted, as he sat down heavily beside them, the others slowly trickling into the make shift campsite behind him. "Quit bein' such a randy old man and enjoy a night of good food, good drink, good company... And look, this lot came too." He added, jerking a thumb around the rest of the group and laughing when they either sighed or groaned at his humour. His heterochromatic eyes glittered with amusement, as Taylor looked over at him with a fond grin, his eyes catching on the visible burns at the back of his neck briefly, as the shadows and flames flickered across the old scars. 

"You're ego is almost as bad as Top Gun's..." Taylor huffed, pushing aside his guilt for another time, when he was alone and able to blame himself freely for their predicament. "I can't tell which one of you rubbed off on the other, Rocket Man." 

"Hey, hey; I say again," Mike said seriously, jabbing a finger at Taylor, as he laughed at his obviously faked outrage. "There has been no rubbing of any kind between me and Grandpa... Ya can't pay me enough to put up with his bullshit. Best friend material only, Kid."

Taylor snorted, capturing Mike's accusing finger and shoving him away lightly. "Uh huh, the man doth protest too much, me thinks..." He snickered, glancing at Jake as his husband watched the interaction with gentle amusement. "And you're way too quiet. You're never quiet. It's entirely too suspicious."

"Okay, okay, lets not get bogged down with your ridiculous theories of who may have fucked who and when, here..." Mile said loudly, as Michelle and Quinn giggled at him. "We're here for a party... And my specialty; scary campfire stories."

"Says the guy who crapped his pants when we went to see Wolfman with my sister," Jake snorted, looking over at his friend with a wry grin. "And she was the one who had to-"

"Okay, you are tellin' that story way outta context, Grandpa." Mike growled, scowling as his accusatory finger returned to jab itself towards Jake. "That was a one time thing, and it was-" Jake laughed, grabbing Mike's wrist and jostling him as they arm wrestled around Taylor playfully, while Taylor merely snickered at the pairs antics.

"Hey, mind the merchandise here..!" He laughed, as Jake finally settled back into his former position behind Taylor, an affectionate grin on his face as Mike sent him a final playful pout. He smiled as Jake embraced him once more, drawing him closer against the pilots chest while Mike rolled his eyes.

"Yo bro's, get a room!" Craig hollered cheerfully, laughing raucously when Zahra backed up his comment by flipping the bird at the pair with a smirk.

"Got one." Jake said smugly, burying his face in the side of Taylors throat as he snickered and squirmed away from his scratching kisses. "Nice big one, with a huge bed and lotsa nice surfaces to fu-"

"Jake!" Taylor yelped, silencing his husband with a kiss which had Jake humming a pleased sound deep in his throat.

"Yeah Taylor, stop being so damn sappy!" Diego teased, as Varyyn took his hand and kissed his fingers affectionately, causing the younger to blush furiously.

"I literally haven't done anything!" Taylor protested, his eyes wide as he turned to his best friend, his jaw dropping in feigned outrage. "Besides, you're the one having your damn hand molested right now!" He laughed, tossing a meringue ghost at Diego's head.

"Hey now, no abusing the food, doodlejumps!" Raj cried, his eyes wide as he looked after his creations worriedly, as Taylor and Diego sniggered and threw them at each other.

"Okay! Hey, hey!" Mike called, raising his arms to gather everyone's attention. "Let's not get distracted here! I promised a scary story... And I am gonna deliver." He said firmly, though his lips twitched with obvious amusement.

Taylor huffed, finally calling a truce to his meringue war with Diego, and snuggling back into his pilots chest. "Fine... But this better be good, Rocket Man."

"Aleister... Will you hold me?" Grace asked quietly, huddling into the pale boys side, as he wrapped an arm around her shoulders obligingly.

"Of course." He said gently, his usual sternness melting as he pressed a soft kiss to the dark skinned girls wild curls. "I'm sure you needn't be scared though Grace, I'm confident that Michael's ability to scare is merely an exaggeration." He assured, as Grace smiled and curled up beside him.

Taylor smiled as Sean offered his arm to Michelle, the blonde slipping easily against his side to rest her head on his shoulder, while Kele and Quinn sat similarly on the other side of the campfire. "I resent that slur on my skill, Hedwig, but just this once I shall let it slide." Mike sneered, clearing his throat as he peered around the circle of friends sinisterly.

"This is not just a story," he began lowly, meeting everyone's eyes as he looked over them slowly. "This all happened, but I've changed a few details for the purposes of this little gathering..." He said, his lips twitching with a barely repressed smile, as Taylor rolled his eyes and settled himself more comfortably against Jake's shoulder, smiling at the soft kiss he felt upon his brow. "And it all began, on a day like any other..." Mike said, throwing some dust upon the fire and causing the flames to roar; and for the briefest moment as his friends all gasped in awe, Taylor thought he saw the flicker of a shadow behind Mike, before he retrained his attention on the ex-pilot, and lost himself to the story he began to weave for them.

Chapter Text

2.

Old Friends.

Bzzzzzzzzzz

Taylor whined, rolling himself up in his duvet as a distinct buzzing sounded in his ears. He reached out, blearily fumbling at his bedside table, as he tried to find the offensive buzzing object. When his blind search proved fruitless, he reluctantly peeled open his eyes and breached the barrier between sleeping and waking. "Nnnnhhhh..." He whined tiredly, frowning as he raised his head and peered blearily around his dresser. "What..?" He mumbled, when he found the faintly flashing screen, and reached for his phone while still half asleep. He unlocked the device, and blinked several times as the bright screen flared to life, a distinct sound of disapproval escaping his throat. "Ugh. Who the hell's texting me at... three in the morning?!" He yelped, sitting up abruptly as he saw Diego's name flash onto his screen.

Hey, are you there? It's Diego. The first message pinged into his inbox as Taylor barely stifled a yawn, running a hand through his hair as he tried to wake himself up. He sighed, shifting himself back against his headboard as he slowly frowned at his screen, upon seeing the second message from his best friend. I messed up. I'm so sorry... 

Diego? What the hell dude, are you okay? What happened? He quickly text back, a sense of dread building in his heart as Diego remained silent for a few brief minutes, which felt like entire lifetimes each on their own.

I went back into the woods. Diego's reply had Taylor bolting upright, his heart instantly clamouring in his chest as he pictured his best friend in danger. I had to be sure, I had to prove to myself that it was all in my head... Diego's follow up message pinged into his inbox a moment layer, and Taylor cursed as he threw his covers off his legs and swung his feet to the floor. But it isn't, Taylor, it's all real. HE'S real. His best friends messages quickly becoming increasingly alarming.

Diego... Are you drunk or something? Taylor quickly replied, gnawing at a nail and bouncing his knee in agitation, as he waited for Diego to reply and desperately hoped his friend was merely drunk and hallucinating. It wouldn't exactly have been the first time, since they'd each turned eighteen earlier in the year. Diego had taken more intimately with drinking, his gentle nature finding solace in the act, drowning out the memories of their past.

I heard him whispering, just like when we were kids. Diego finally text back, and Taylor hung his head, curling a hand into his sleep mussed short red hair and tugging at it sharply. He sucked in several harsh breaths, trying to calm the rapid rush of blood in his ears.

Stop it, Diego. He sent back quickly, raising his head to scowl at his phone, once he felt he had a better grasp on his emotions. We... We made all that stuff up. He sent, swallowing heavily as he repeated the now familiar words both to himself and his best friend. Mr. Red was just, a dumb kids game that... got out of control. He doesn't exist, dude. He never did. Taylor closed his eyes briefly, scrubbing his hand over his face and furrowing his brow, as he was riddled by uncertainty. With a sharp inhale of breath, he steeled his nerve and told himself once again that his doubts were misplaced, but he immediately felt a cold chill travel up his spine, when he saw Diego's next messages awaiting him.

He does. He's here with me now. Taylor felt his heart lurch, his hand trembling as his phone suddenly seemed to weigh more than a stack of bricks. He exhaled loudly, his throat tightening as he felt a very real splinter of fear prick his heart.

Wait... Diego, where are you? Taylor sent back, his mouth dry as he tried to swallow past the thick blanket of dread which seemed to descend upon him.

I can hear him... in the trees. Diego's almost wistful reply made Taylors heart clench painfully, a ringing sound beginning to sound in his ears as he slowly pushed to his feet and began to pace beside his bed nervously. I hear him whispering... Diego's newest message pinged in his inbox and instilled a fear so deep, that Taylor paused in his pacing and shivered. He desperately yearned for his friend to send another message, laughing and calling him a wuss for falling for his drunken prank; but the use of the forbidden topic, Mr. Red, already told him that message would never come.

A sudden burst of harsh tapping from his window made Taylor jump, dropping his phone as he spun around quickly. "Aaaahh!" He yelped in surprise, his heart hammering in his chest as he noticed a dark shape looming outside the window. His blood turned to ice, as he fumbled for the light switch and flicked it on, flooding his bedroom with bright light which streamed through the window to reveal a familiar form huddled outside.

"Diego!" Taylor cried, his expression morphing to a scowl as he approached, his relief at knowing his friend was safe quickly being replaced by irritation at his cruel prank. "What the hell are you doing out there at three on the morning, dude? This is seriously lame, man. You scared the goddamn shit outta me with those bloody messages!" He snarked, frowning as he unlatched and slid his window open.

"Taylor..." Diego said slowly, frowning as if he weren't entirely sure whether he were really looking at his best friend. "Can I come in?" He asked with uncharacteristic shyness, as Taylor rolled his eyes at him in frustration.

"Well that's kinda what the open window was for, yeah." He huffed sarcastically, stepping back and folding his arms over his chest as he raised an expectant brow at his friend. "You know, seeing as you decided to forgo the use of the perfectly normal door downstairs." He added, frowning as Diego finally began to stiffly climb into his room. "You've got some serious explaining to do though, assbutt." He said, glancing back out the window with his brows furrowed in confusion. "First off... How the hell did you get up to my window? 'Cause we're definitely on the second floor right now."

"I climbed." Diego said quietly, cocking his head with a faint frown, as if he thought Taylor were being ridiculously dense.

"Uh... okay, Spiderboy." Taylor snorted, rolling his eyes as he felt his irritation bleed away into sympathy for his obviously drunken friend, running his eyes over him worriedly. "You sounded really freaked out in your texts, dude..."

"It's nothing." Diego said, waving a hand dismissively as he moved around Taylor to the far wall, gazing intently at a blank area. "I'm fine." He said distantly, reaching for a small photo and returning it to the wall, pinning it in place by a ragged corner. "Come on," he said suddenly, turning back to the window now his task was seemingly complete, as Taylor frowned at him in rising concern. "We need to go get the others."

"Whoa, whoa, whoa..." Taylor finally interrupted, stepping into Diego's path so he couldn't clamber back out the window. "Slow down there, Forrest... What others?" He said, shaking his head slightly as he felt the blanket of dread settle upon his shoulders once more.

"Our friends!" Diego laughed lightly, a bright smile which did not reach his eyes forming on his face, causing Taylor to shiver and take an uncertain step back from his best friend. "Rebecca, Quinn, Raj, Aleister, Zahra and Sean." Taylor frowned as Diego rattled off the names like they'd spoken only the day before, instead of drifting apart over the past ten years. "I've got something to show you..." Diego whispered, and Taylor couldn't help the shiver of nervousness at the strangely excited, conspiratorial tome his friend used. "But, we need to bring everyone."

"Diego..." Taylor tried, pushing aside his unease as he tentatively reached for his friend, only to hesitate before he could touch him. "Dude, we've barely spoken to any of that group since we were little kids.  After what happened-"

"But they have to come, Taylor." Diego demanded firmly, his shoulders stiffening as his expression bled into an uncharacteristically hard scowl. "Everyone has to be there. That's the rule." He said, causing Taylor to flinch and shudder, at the darkness which overcame his friends face.

Taylor looked down as his phone buzzed again, rattling across the floorboards. He exhaled heavily, running a hand through his hair as he bent down to pick up the vibrating object. "Diego, dude... You know I wanna help you. You're my best friend, but honestly; you're kinda freaking me out right now, assbutt." He sighed, holding his phone tightly as he gazed at his best friend imploringly. "We've got out first day of school in like, six hours... Can't this wait til then, dude? I think you just need to sleep this o-" His phone buzzed again in his hand, and he fell silent as another notification popped up on the screen just as he looked down with a frown.

Are you still there? I... I think I'm lost, dude... Taylors blood ran cold as he saw new messages from Diego arriving in his inbox, his heart thudding violently within his chest. Taylor? My battery's almost dead, please... help me!

"Wait..." Taylor said slowly, swallowing heavily as he stared at his phone in disbelief. He licked his lips, his hands trembling as he tried to understand the impossibility of what he saw upon the screen. 

"We have to go back to the woods, Taylor." Diego said lowly, just before the lights in Taylors bedroom flickered, a chill wind sweeping through his open window. Taylor swallowed thickly against the fear which choked him, slowly looking up from his phone.

"... Diego?" He asked hesitantly, his heart faltering as a smile spread across his best friends face, stretching wider than it should.

"Taylor." He whispered darkly, his eyes glittering with an unnatural malice. Taylor started to back away, but Diego's hand clamped tightly around his wrist.

"Hey!" Taylor yelped, trying to pull free, only for his friend to cling to him with inhuman strength. His heart hammering wildly in his chest, Taylor did the only thing he could think of; drawing back his fist and slamming it against Diego's cheek, his eyes widening when his friend barely even flinched. "What the-"

Diego threw Taylor to the floor, pinning his back to the rough boards. "We all have to go back." Diego growled darkly, as Taylor struggled helplessly beneath him. "Don't you remember?"

"Dude, get off of me!" Taylor yelled back, scowling as he tried to free his arms so he could shove his friend away. He finally managed to free one hand, using it to claw at Diego, only for his flesh to crumble beneath his fingernails.

Diego leaned in, his cold breath stonking of moldy dirt and blood, as his malicious grin began to spread over his face. "Everyone plays together, Taylor..." He demanded as shadows converged upon him, his entire face and body disappearing into the darkness. The creatures hands tighten around Taylors throat, causing his vision to blur, as the shadows seemed to writhe and bleed throughout the dark room.

"Hrrnnnngg..." Taylor choked, paralyzed by terror and finding he had no breath left to scream. He simply sank deeper into a cold, black nothingness. 

"Aaaaahhh!" Taylor cried, jerking into wakefulness with adrenaline burning in his veins, as he thrashed against his attacker; until he realised that he was alone in his room. "The hell..?" He gasped, looking over to his closed window nervously. "Oh my god... What a messed up dream." He muttered, rubbing a hand over his face tiredly. His fingers dipped to his neck and he gasped, flinching as he brushed fresh bruises there. "What the-?!" He cried, flying from beneath the tangle of his covers, as he swept across the room to his mirror and gazing at the marks on his flesh in wide eyed disbelief. "No way... this can't be happening..." He muttered, shaking his head as he twisted a hand into his short red hair.

Taylor glanced around his room urgently, finding his phone on the floor beside his bed. He snatched it up quickly to look at the texts he'd received the previous night, only to discover the battery had died. "Aw, crap..." He sighed, tossing his phone into his school bag and turning heading to the bathroom down the hall. After taking some time to refresh himself and prepare for the day, he ambled back to his room and turned towards his closet.

"Guess I'm heading back in the closet..." He snickered distractedly, shaking his head at his own weak attempt at humour. "I suppose I better get ready for school though. Need to look good for my first day of senior year, and all... Not that I don't always look good, of course." He added, snickering as he brushed his hair up into a familiar spikey style. He grabbed a mesh net top and threw a vest over it quickly, before tugging on a pair of jeans covered in zips. He added several studded belts, because one would just have been ridiculous, before adding some spiked bracelets to one wrist and a gaudy silver necklace for good measure. 

"Yep, I'm a damn godsend." He huffed, laughing lightly. "Which... is why I am still a virgin." He chuckled, shaking his head at himself in amusement. He paused suddenly, frowning as he lightly fingered at the dark marks around his neck, before quickly rolling up the neck of his vest, effectively hiding them from sight. After a final glance at himself in the mirror, he shook his head and grabbed his bag, before hurrying down the stairs.

As he made his way outside, he cast a nervous glance toward the border at the edge of his yard. The trees beyond his scruffy fence loomed ominous and dark, and a shiver passed over Taylors spine. "Mr. Red..." He breathed, shaking his head as he ran his eyes over the woodland area and bit his lip dubiously. "Diego couldn't have seen him... That, that was all just make believe." He mumbled, his eyes narrowing as he repeated the words they had all told themselves over the years.

He shook himself from his dazed staring, descending the steps from his front door, as a friendly voice called out from the yard next door. "Morning, neighbour!" 

"Oh hey, Lila." Taylor called, startling as he looked over at the brunette tour guide for Rourke Industries, who lived beside them. "What's up?"

"Just coming back from our walk." Lila giggled happily, smiling as she tipped her head towards a nearby footpath. "Hey, Furball, look who it is!" She called over her shoulder, drawing a blur of blue fur to crash out of the bushes, looking around excitedly.

"Mrrmm!" The blue fox yipped, bounding over to Taylor, who laughed and dropped to his knees to pet him, as the foxes bushy tail wagged back and forth like a flag.

"Hi, boy!" Taylor laughs, as the blue fox whined and leapt nimbly up to his shoulders, where he began to lick his face. "Whose a good magic ice fox? You are! Yes, you are..!" Taylor cooed affectionately, scratching behind Furball's ears as he squirmed away from.ghe small cold tongue. "Oh, man... I still can't believe your luck in finding him! He's so adorable, like, literally the cutest thing I've ever seen. I'm so jealous..." He said, pouting over at his neighbour accusingly as he got to his feet.

"Heh, well I think he spends more time at your house than mine to be fair." Lila laughed, pointing at the little fox knowingly. "He's already picked his favourite, even if it was me who found him alone and hungry in the woods!"

"Mrrrhmmm!" Furball purred, nuzzling against Taylors cheek fondly. He laughed and scratched under the little foxes chin, as Furball nipped at his fingers playfully.

"Aww... It's always good to see you too, little buddy!" Taylor said, as Furball hopped down from his shoulder and into his arms, wriggling happily as he presented his belly for Taylor to rub. "Oh, I see... You only want me for my belly rubbing abilities!" Taylor snickered, shaking his head as he acquiesced to the small animals demands and began to scratch his offered belly.

"Your parents around?" Lila asked, an uncharacteristic frown on her face as she peered at the obviously empty driveway. "I didn't see 'em out and about this morning."

"You know them, busy busy." Taylor sais dismissively, pretending not to notice the brief flicker of sympathy which welled within Lila's eyes. "They're still overseas dealing with my aunt's estate, or whatever... They'll uh, they'll be back in a couple of weeks." He said, clearing his throat as he willed himself to believe the words himself.

"Aw, shoot..." Lila said, her naturally bubbly personality dimming as she eyed Taylors home dubiously. "That's a long time for a kid to be by themselves... Especially in a big house like that!" She said, as she bit her lip in concern.

"Yeah well, I'm eighteen now so at least I can take care of myself." Taylor said, smiling down at Furball as he huffed and captured his hand playfully between his four paws. "Besides, the nightly ragers keep me occupied." He joked, snorting as Furball rolled in his arms and hopped down to the floor. "Nothing like kegstands and strip poker to kick off a new school year, am I right?"

"You know, as someone who's older than you and has been through college," Lila began with a giggle, her melancholy fading at Taylors teasing. "I feel obligated to tell you, that kegstands are a lot less fun than they sound." She paused, her expression rearranging into a confused frown briefly. "I mean, unless you like the feeling of cheap beer foam all up in your sinuses..."

"Gross." Taylor laughed, picking up his bag and rubbing Furball's head a final tine briefly, before pushing to his feet again. "No thankyou. I shall leave such things to the experts, like Raj." He snickered, though his amusement faded as the nightmare from the previous night flashed before his eyes. When he shook himself free of the vision, he found that Lila had cocked her head and taken a few steps towards his house, before crouching down beside a small pile of loose dirt.

"Huh," she hummed thoughtfully, her fingers tentatively sweeping the topsoil of the mound aside. "I wonder what this could be..." She said lowly, plucking something out of the pile and holding it up to the light. Taylor frowned and narrowed his eyes, finding himself staring suspiciously at a glossy black stone, carved with a strange rune. "This yours?" Lila asked, her eyes rising to Taylors expectantly.

Taylor shrugged his shoulders, holding out his hand for the stone, allowing Lila to drop it into his palm. "Hmm..." He hummed noncommittally, as he examined the stone carefully, running his thumb across a deep crack which ran through th center of the engraved rune. "Weird..." He remarked distractedly, as he hefted the stone gently in his palm, the object surprisingly heavy for its small size. "I wonder where it came from... and what broke it." He wondered aloud.

"Beats me!" Lola chirped happily, beaming a wide smile at him, as she strolled back to her own yard. "Looks like a paperweight or something!" She said lightly, glancing down at Furball with a knowing grin. "I suppose you're coming home with me whilst your favourite goes to school?" She asked, laughing when the blue fox yipped in obvious assent.

Taylor barely heard then, absently brushing away some of the dirt from the stone, when he froze suddenly. A familiar scent wafted into his nose; cold earth, with a hint of blood. Taylor swallowed heavily, lost in the vivid memory of the previous night. "It smells just like that thing that-" he whispered, before snapping out of his own thoughts, forcing himself to fall silent as he glanced nervously at Lila, his throat burning beneath the high neck of his vest.

"Smells like what?" The perky tour guide asked, cocking her head as she ran her eyes over him curiously.

"Uh... weird." Taylor said quickly, clearing his throat as he shrugged his shoulders in an attempt at nonchalance. "It just... smells kinda weird."

Lila nodded as if she suddenly understood, dusting off her hands as she smiled at him with a bouncing energy he no longer felt. "Well! I'll let you get to school!" She said brightly, pausing as she glanced up at his house. "You just, let me know if you need anything... alright? My door's always open." She said warmly, her smile infectious as Taylor felt himself smile back gently.

"Will do." He said, nodding lightly as he swung his bag back to his shoulder. "Thanks, Lila." He called, raising a hand in a vague wave, as Lila clapped her hands together quickly. Furball ran around Taylors legs once, making him laugh fondly, before the little blue fox darted away to follow Lila. Once they were out of sight, Taylor looked down at the stone in his hand, the smile fading slowly from his face.

If what I saw last night was real, this could be a clue... He thought, tracing his finger over the cracked rune again lightly. I better keep it somewhere safe. He hummed, closing his hand around the stone as he raised his head and squinted around the yard, his eyes alighting upon the old shed just inside of the fence. He trotted over quickly, knowing he was now running short on time. It took several tries for him to finally work the door open, ots rusted hinges screeching with every shove.

"Damn..." Taylor muttered, scowling at the stubborn door as he finally managed to push his way inside and turned on the light. "When's the last time someone was even in here..?" He wondered, grimacing as cobwebs tickled his face. He swiped them aside distractedly, as he approached the worktable at the back of the shed, and set the cracked stone down on its dusty surface. "Huh..." He hummed, looking around the unused space thoughtfully. "I bet I could fit all kinds of stuff in here..." He looked around a moment more, before shrugging his shoulders and turning back to the door. He flicked off the light and stepped back out into the yard, closing the shed door behind him, before setting off at a rough jog towards the road.

He hummed as he walked, distracting himself from thinking of the previous night and telling himself he was going to kick Diego's ass when he saw him; just on principle. It was a few minutes later, walking at the edge of the asphalt road which ran along the edge of the woods, that he heard a car approaching from behind. He stepped to the side, glancing  up as he half turned, to lock eyes with the driver of a black vintage Camaro.

Taylor quickly faced forward, desperately hoping that the heat he felt rising to his cheeks hadn't been a visible phenomena to the driver. He kept walking, lowering his gaze with a faint furrow to his brows as he recalled the mans face. He looks familiar... He thought, his heart skipping a beat as he heard the car begin to slow. He stopped at the same time as the car, turning to see the driver leaning out the open window with a cocky, lopsided grin.

"Hey," he drawled, and Taylor smiled at the way the drivers cerulean eyes quickly darted over him. "I know ya from somewhere?" He asked, a southern accent colouring his words as he looked at Taylor curiously.

Taylor hummed thoughtfully, taking his time as he dragged his eyes over the shaggy, shoulder length hair and five o'clock shadow of stubble of the handsome man. "Well, I'd sure like to know you better!" He finally said with a coy wink, causing the driver to laugh and cock an eyebrow at him in amusement.

"Well, I wouldn't say no to that." The driver said, his cocky grin only growing at the easy banter. "Though, it looks like you're on ya way somewhere at the moment." He said, nodding towards Taylors school bag. "Westchester High?"

"Er, yeah..." Taylor admitted reluctantly, wishing the floor could swallow him and save him from having to confess that he was still a student to the man. "But, I'm eighteen!" He blurted suddenly, able to feel his cheeks burning as the driver gave a surprised bark of laughter. "I mean, I'm a senior. It's my last year." He clarified, biting his lip and holding his head high despite his embarrassment, vehemently wishing away the hot flush in his cheeks as he lowered his gaze to the asphalt.

"Almost free of that hellhole then, huh?" The driver asked, still snickering over Taylors flustered confession. "Congrats." He said, as he quickly glanced over Taylor again.

"Thanks." Taylor sighed in relief, pleased the man was ignoring his outburst. "I'll, uh, see you around?" He asked hopefully, toying with the strap of his bag, as he peeked up at the driver with a small, sly smile.

"Probably will." The driver chuckled, tipping his head in acknowledgment. "It's a small town." He said, clicking his tongue as he briefly brushed two fingers to his brow in a rough salute. Taylor stepped back as the driver stepped on the gas, biting his lip as the car began to pull away.

"Oh!" He gasped suddenly, his eyes widening as he stepped forward and looked after the car. "I never got your..." He began to call after the driver, but he was already too far away to hear him, disappearing around a bend in the road. "... name." He sighed, running a hand through his hair distractedly, before shrugging his shoulders and continuing his long walk to school.

No, no Mr fancy car guy, I don't need a lift at all; please, just leave me out here, despite the fact you're obviously gonna go past the stupid school... He thought acerbically, shaking his head as he snorted and made his way along the road, a small smile curling the corners of his lips upward, as he lost himself in pleasant daydreams of handsome, not quite strangers.

By the time he finally made it to school, a thin crowd of other students were trickling across the front yard, waving and calling out to their friends as they converged before the entrance doors. Taylor ignored them, moving straight inside to search out his best friend and apply the ass-kicking he had mentally been promising him. He squeezed through the loud and crowded hall, to find a familiar girl standing at the locker beside his. "Oh!" He yelped in surprise, his eyes widening as he flashed back to the previous night briefly. "Hey, Zahra." He said, recovering his wits quickly and moving to stuff his bag in his locker.

"'Sup." Zahra replied blandly, her maroon mohawk flopping over one side of her face, covering the against school regulations piercing in her eyebrow, and the additional rings in her ear.

"Not much..." Taylor said elusively, pushing aside his discomfort over the previous night as he frowned suddenly. "That hasn't always been your locker, has it? I've never seen you using it before..."

"Got reassigned." Zahra said, kicking her locker shut and shrugging her bag onto her shoulder. "Oh look, it's Quinn." She said dryly, gesturing over Taylors shoulder. Taylor turned to follow Zahra's gaze, to see a redheaded girl approaching. She had crystalline blue eyes, which held a great deal more kindness than Taylor had ever thought possible, her fair complexion turned a shade paler than it used to be when they'd last talked. She smiled shyly, glancing down the hall as she clutched a textbook to her chest.

"Um... Hi, guys." She said quietly, peeking up them as her pale hands trembled slightly. Taylors heart ached as he looked over the withdrawn girl, recalling the day she had been given the devastating news of her incurable illness.

"Hi, Quinn." He said with a soft smile, pleased when she looked up at him with obvious gratitude. I should never have let us drift apart. He thought guiltily, clearing his throat as he grabbed a book from his locker by way of distraction. "It's  been awhile..." He said, pausing as he almost asked about her summer, before deciding against it. It wasn't exactly obvious that Quinn's parents were constantly at loggerheads since their daughters diagnosis with Rotterdam's Syndrome, but it was fairly common knowledge around the town that they differed in opinion of how she should be treated. "You excited for classes?" He finally asked, shaking himself from his guilt and refocusing on the girl who had once been such a close friend.

"I guess..." She said, her smile turning to a concerned frown as she bit her lip. "I'm a little worried about my art class." She admitted, as Taylors eyes widened in surprise.

"What? Why?" He choked, as Quinn averted her eyes from him, her cheeks stained a faint rosy pink which made her pale complexion all the more striking. "You're an amazing artist! I remember you drawing some of the most detailed stuff I've ever seen!" He went on, emphasising his point with a dramatic hand gesture. "Besides... Don't you have like, a four point five grade point average..?" He asked, expending a fair deal of effort to force himself to calm down.

"Well, yeah but... Art has no objective rubric for success. How can I be sure I'm doing it right?" She asked, glancing at him briefly as her cheeks coloured further. "Besides... I, find it difficult to hold a paintbrush or pencil for too long now." She admitted quietly, as Taylor was struck by a sharp sting of guilt for overlooking her sickness and the effects it might have upon her body.

"Quinn..." He murmured, half reaching to draw her into a hug, but redirecting his hand at the last moment to pat her gently on the shoulder. Before he could say anything further, Quinn glanced around furtively and stepped closer, lowering her voice.

"There's um, there's actually something I wanted to talk to you about..." She said, a tinge of urgency to her words, as she gazed at him imploringly.

"Sure," Taylor said, a sense of foreboding building in his gut. "What's up?" He asked, forcing himself to ignore the reluctance a d dread which he felt clutch at his heart.

"I... I got some really weird texts last night." She finally said, glancing around the hall again, as Taylor felt the blood drain from his face. "Did you..?" She began, before trailing off, looking over his shoulder as her expression shuttered closed.

Taylor frowned, turning to see a pretty blonde girl walk by, chatting with two friends. "Oh my god, look." She said dramatically, showing her phone to her friends  proudly. "I've been ghosting this guy for like, two solid weeks, and he just asked me out for coffee again."

"Oh boy." Zahra sighed, rolling her eyes at the blonde as she folded her arms over her chest and leaned back against her locker. "Just when you think high school might not be the sucking, necrotic chest wound that you remember..." She said, scowling as the guy next to the blonde laughed, running a hand through his shirt dark hair.

"Bro, desperate is not a good look." The guy snorted, eyeing Zahra only briefly, before they both averted their eyes.

"Maybe he's just not scared of ghosts..." Said a girl with a long, dark ponytail and a scar over one eye, clearly only half paying attention to the conversation. "You could try clowns instead. Lots of people seem to be scared of clowns."

"That's not..." The blonde began, looking over at the dark haired girl with a frown. "Estela, are you even listening to-"

"Hi, Michelle..." Quinn said as they passed, the group pausing in their tracks as the blonde in question turned to give Quinn an appraising look.

"Wow, Quinn, nice look there." She sneered, her lips curling into a malicious grin, even as her caramel eyes flared with guilt. "I hear the 'just outta hospital again' look is all the rage this season."

"I..." Quinn said lowly, averting her eyes and trying hard to hide her hurt flinch. "I just, wanted to say hello..." She muttered, biting her lip as her fingers curled tighter around her textbook.

"And I want a red Ferrari for my birthday." Michelle said brightly, a dangerous leer in her voice as she taunted Quinn. "But, I'll settle for not having to listen to your whiny voice anymore."

Taylor scowled, his hands clenching into tight fists at his side, as he grit his teeth together. Quinn won't want a scene... He thought reluctantly, sighing as he forced his hand to relax and ran it through his hair quickly. He turned his back on Michelle and her friends, Estela not even paying attention to what was going on as she gazed down the hall in the opposite direction in obvious boredom. Taylor forced a bright smile to his face, winking as he leaned in closer to Quinn. 

"You know, I am super jealous of how gorgeous you look right now, Quinn." He said, his fingers toying with a curl of Quinn's red hair gently. "I've been thinking of growing my hair out, ya know? But damn, I don't think it will ever be as beautiful as yours..." He said, sighing dramatically.

"Excuse you," Michelle said hotly, scowling at Taylor as he glanced back over his shoulder at her emotionlessly, noticing her eyes cut sharply to where he still held a curl of Quinn's hair. "But nobody asked for-"

Taylor rolled his eyes, turning back to Quinn with a heavily emphasised roll of his eyes, as he refocused on his conversation with the redhead. "Quinn, you wanna do my hair sometime? I mean, I know there's not a lot can be done with such an unmanageable mane like mine," he said, purposefully giving a dramatic shake of his head and smoothing an imaginary strand of hair from his face, as Quinn bit her lip to contain a fond giggle. "But it'd be nice to think I might not look quite so much like my boring ass dad." He said, throwing her a conspiratorial wink for good measure.

Quinn laughed, unable to help herself as she gazed up at Taylor fondly. "I'd love to!" She said, her radiant smile well worth the effort in Taylors mind. The redhead's cheeks flushed with colour, and she bit her lip again as she lowered her eyes to the floor, shuffling her toe briefly.

"You're boring." Estela sighed, shaking her head as she waited for the exchange to be over, blatantly not interested in their bickering.

"Oh yeah, well-" Michelle began, her cheeks flaring with colour as she scowled at Taylor in irritation, looking almost as if she were about to begin stamping her feet.

"Shhhh..." Zahra said, smirking as she held up a hand to the blonde. "Witty comebacks aren't you're strong suit, Gold Digger Barbie." She snorted, as Michelle turned her furious glare towards the pierced girl.

"There's nothing wrong with wanting the best in life." She sneered, running her eyes over Zahra disparagingly. "Not that you would know anything about that." She added, raising a brow at Zahra's dark clothing.

"Oh gee, I don't know how I'll cope with your disapproval." Zahra scoffed, flipping the bird at the blonde, as her eyes turned to the jock beside her. "What're you staring at, ya doofus?" She demanded, her expression twisting into an uncomfortable scowl.

"Pfft, I'm not staring!" He defended, shifting guiltily as he quickly looked away. "You're staring!" He countered lamely, scoffing as he puffed out his chest and glanced back at her briefly. "Why don't you go haunt some other hallway, freak."

Zahra gave the jock a long, ponderous look, before quickly reaching forward and plucking a loose hair from his shoulder. "You know, I keep meaning to try out this new curse I found on the internet." She said, a slow and sinister smirk forming as she dangled the hair before the group briefly. "If you feel a burning sensation in your eyeballs, that's normal." She whispered, chuckling darkly as she tucked the hair away out of sight.

"The hell..!" The jock cried, his eyes widening as Zahra waggled her fingers ominously, winking at him before stalking away down the hall.

"Later, losers." She called back to them, raising a hand to Taylor and Quinn, despite not turning to look at them.

"Later..." Taylor called, huffing in find amusement as he watched the sinister girl stalk away.

"Bye, Zahra." Quinn called, biting her lip to hide a grin. She exchanged a glance with Taylor, the pair quickly looking away again to contain their amused giggles.

"Wow Craig, looks like you can kiss goodbye to your eyeballs." Estela snorted, the first sign she had paid any attention to what had passed between them. Craig jumped guiltily upon hearing the other girls dry tease, tearing his eyes away from Zahra as she turned the corner at the end of the hall, just missing her brief glance back to them. 

"Urgh, that weirdo reads way too many vampire novels." Michelle scoffed dismissively, as Taylor turned a frown her way. "With any luck, she'll flunk out and go live in a dirty tree shack like that Ximaedra freak and her freak son."

"You think everyone who isn't you is a freak." Estela said dryly, rolling her eyes with a disinterested sigh. "Can we go, already?" She said, not waiting for a response before she began to walk away.

"... Rude, Z." Craig muttered, glancing back down the hall to where Zahra had disappeared, before moving after Estela. 

Taylor shook his head, turning to grab an extra notebook from his locker. "Well, Michelle, as lovely as this little chat as this has been, we should probably go-"

"Oh. My. God... Is that a hickey?!" Michelle gasped, her tone filled with malicious glee. Taylor flinched and turned sharply, jerking away with a scowl as he felt Michelle's finger poke at the fresh bruises on the side of his neck.

"Hey, personal space, Housewife Barbie!" He growled in frustration, tugging his vest neck higher to cover the dark bruises once more. "Get offa me, ya harpy!"

"Pfft, yeah right." Craig guffawed, having paused in his tracks at Michelle's incredulous gasp. "Who the hell would wanna chew on this loser?" 

"Aw," Taylor huffed, forcing a cheeky grin to his face despite his urge to scowl at the jock. "For your information, I got it from your dad." He said lightly, as Quinn hid her face behind her textbook and giggled.

"Huh, I thought my dad was in Aspen this week..." Craig said, his eyes wide as he thought of having been lied to by his parent. Taylor snorted in amusement and rolled his eyes, as he closed his locker.

"You should watch what you say, Taylor." Michelle warned, eyeing him with a dangerous glint in her eye, before glancing at Quinn quickly. "That mouth of yours is gonna get you in trouble."

"Well, at least it doesn't get me in the kinda trouble yours does, Michelle." Taylor said in a mocking whisper, as the blondes eyes widened at his implication.

"You..!" She gasped, a scowl quickly forming on her face. She grit her teeth suddenly, tossing her hair over her shoulder as she forced a smile to her face which did not meet her eyes. "Whatever. Fascinating as this conversation is, I need to go get ready for the pep rally." She said, jerking her head at the scowling Craig and the bored looking Estela, throwing a final glance at Quinn before stalking away.

Craig shoulder checked Taylor as he passed, knocking him hard against his locker. "Uh, ow!" Taylor growled sarcastically, as he glared after the trio.

"Hey!" Quinn cried, scowling at the jock angrily as Craig leaned close into Taylors space.

"We'll catch up later, bro." He said, a pleasant grin on his face despite his threatening tone, as he leered at Taylor before drawing away and following his friends.

Taylor winced, rubbing his shoulder where it had slammed into the locker, shaking his head as the terrorizing threesome left him alone with Quinn. "This school year's already off to a great start, huh?"

"Taylor, thank you for standing up for me." Quinn said gently, placing her textbook in Taylors grasp, as she rubbed his shoulder carefully. "But you shouldn't worry about me... I'm not worth getting in trouble ove-"

"Yes you are, Quinn." Taylor said, interrupting the redhead with such a determined tone that she looked up at him in wide eyed shock. "Quin... I'm so sorry, that I haven't been there for you, that I let you struggle on your own with everything you're going through." He said, wrapping his arms around her shoulders and drawing her into a light embrace, feeling her hands ball into the back of his vest. "But, I promise, I'm going to be there again now, okay? Starting with the every day, tedious crap like this."

"Oh, Taylor..." Quinn mumbled into his shoulder, her voice heavy with gratitude. "You always did know how to make me smile again when I hit rock bottom."

"Well, let's hope its one skill I never lose, huh?" Taylor chuckled, chafing Quinn's shoulder gently. "Come on, beautiful, let's get those long legs of yours moving." He said, laughing when Quinn drew back to slap his shoulder with a playful grin.

"Ooh, you... Keep that up and I might forget I lack the appropriate anatomy to keep your attention, and fall in love with you." She said, smirking when Taylor feigned an outraged expression, his hand over his heart.

"Why Quinn, I'm shocked at you. Shocked." He gasped, before dissolving into snickers and slinging an arm about the redheads shoulders, as the two of them joined the crowd of students shuffling towards the gym. "You know you'll always be my number one gal."

"Unless Zahra's around." Quinn laughed, her eyes bright with amusement as she smiled up at him ruefully.

"Hey, totally different type of love, okay." Taylor defended, jostling her lightly as they dawdled their way along behind the crowd. "You're the light to Zahra's dark, you both complete me." He snickered, glancing up as music blared over the gym speakers. He was struck by a sudden rush of panic as the crowd jostled him and Quinn, his mind flying back to the night before.

"Taylor!" Quinn cried, bringing his attention back to the present as he inhaled deeply and blinked around the gym, finally looking over at Quinn, as she gazed at him in concern. "Are you okay?"

"Y-yeah." He coughed, clearing his throat as he tried to brush off his unease. "Just uh, kinda crowded in here. You see anywhere to sit, beautiful?" He asked, distracting Quinn from his brief meltdown as he looked around for an empty space.

"Not really..." Quinn said slowly, frowning at him worriedly, before looking around the gym herself, giving in to his silent request to ignore his obvious distress. "It looks like there are a couple seats up there next to... Oh, never mind. That's Zahra's spot."

"So?" Taylor huffed, jumping on the opportunity to reunite himself with his former friends once more, guiding Quinn gently up the steps to the top row, where Zahra sat scribbling in a worn sketchbook. As Taylor and Quinn paused to let some other students past, they watched some freshman move to sit beside Zahra.

"Hisssss..." She hissed viciously at them, glaring after the freshman as they scrambled to get away from her, before noticing Taylor and Quinn watching her with apparent amusement. "What?" She asked, her lips twitching in an effort to keep from smiling. She nodded to the empty bench, before looking back down at her sketchbook.

"I think that's our cue to go sit by her." Taylor snickered, waiting for the final students to trickle past them.

"I guess so." Quinn laughed, following Taylors lead as he led her up the steps towards the empty seat by Zahra.

Maybe I could talk to them about what happened last night. Taylor thought, his heart skipping a beat in nervous anticipation, as he approached the sinister girl. Zahra knows a lot about all kinds of supernatural stuff anyway... He reminded himself, swallowing as his palms began to sweat slightly. God, it'd be nice to tell someone who'd actually believe me... He thought, before glancing sidelong at Quinn, frowning and biting his lip suddenly.  But... Quinn has enough to deal with already, without adding the weight of my stupid troubles to her shoulders. He thought, frowning as he lost himself in his own mind briefly.

"Oh, my friends are down there..." Quinn said suddenly, looking down to another group who were waving at Quinn, one a dark skinned girl with glasses and an orange jumper. "Do you mind..? We can catch up again later, maybe..?" She asked, looking at Taylor uncertainly.

"You bet we can, beautiful." Taylor said, brushing a quick kiss to the top of her red hair, a relieved grin on his face as she rolled her eyes and began moving away. "And, we so will. Lunch. On me." He added, pointing at her firmly.

"Last of the big spenders." Quinn giggled, backing away with a wave, winking as she turned towards her friends. "It's a date, handsome. Oh!" She paused, turning back and blowing a kiss to Taylor. "And thanks for your help earlier, Taylor... and everything else after."

"Anytime." Taylor said, grinning broadly as Quinn winked again and turned back to her friends. "See you later, beautiful." He said, climbing to the top row of the bleachers and sidling over to Zahra's corner with a cocky grin. He jabbed a thumb at the empty spot right next to her, raising a brow expectantly. "Hey, anyone sitting here?"

"Just my ghost pal, but he's incorporeal so, I guess it doesn't really count." Zahra intoned dryly, glancing up at him to see how he would react. Taylor snorted, rolling his eyes as he began to laugh. "What." She demanded, as Taylor shook his head and met her gaze with a wry grin.

"Nothing, I'm just imagining the faces of all the people who wouldn't know if you were messing with them or not." Taylor snickered, making a show of examining the empty bench space, before looking back at Zahra's expressionless face.

"It's all part of my mystique." Zahra said as she broke into an amused smirk, watching him intently as Taylor laughed again and purposefully exaggerated his movements around the seat next to her, leaving a person sized space between them.

"Cool." Zahra huffed, clicking her tongue as she ran her eyes over him thoughtfully. "Good to know I can make you do stuff by saying random spooky shit." Taylor snorted and rolled his eyes again, sitting with the sinister girl in a not quite awkward silence for a few minutes, as Zahra returned her attention to scribbling in her sketchbook. "So," she said finally, never once looking up from her page as Taylor glanced over at her. "You gonna tell me what you're so freaked out about? Or are you actually having fun, dismembering that dumb bench?"

"Huh?" Taylor asked, frowning as Zahra flicked her pen towards him quickly. He looked down to realise he'd been picking splinters off the edge of the bleachers. "I... do wanna talk about it. And, I figured you'd be the best person, it's just... kind of a weird story." He hedged, picking at another splinter awkwardly.

"Taylor." Zahra sighed, rolling her eyes as she fixed him with a withering gaze, raising a brow as she gestured to herself in pointed emphasis. "Look at me. Weird, is my middle name."

"Really?" Taylor asked, fighting to contain a grin as he glanced up at her slyly. "I thought it was Yasmin..." He laughed, as Zahra visibly bristled and scowled at him firmly. 

"If you ever say that aloud again," she began, as Taylor snorted and watched with amusement as she fumed. "I will go to your house and hide eyeballs in your food."

"Where would you even get-" Taylor began, barely tapering off as his laughter returned too thickly to speak coherently.

"Next time you go to pour a bowl of cereal?" Zahra continued, smirking as Taylor continued to try and stifle his obvious mirth. "Bloop. Eyeballs."

"Oh my god, ahem..." Taylor huffed, clearing his throat as he fought to regain control of himself. "Oh... noted." He snorted, revelling in his amusement a moment longer, before he turned his thoughts to the previous night, and he felt the laughter quickly fade from his system. "So..." He began seriously, Zahra cocking her head at his sudden change in demeanour. "What would you say, if I told you that last night, I saw some kind of... monster?" He asked, licking his lips as he finally met her gaze nervously.

"Depends." She said, shrugging her shoulders as she folded her arms over her sketchbook and looked at him with a raised brow. "What'd this monster look like?" 

"Well..." Taylor huffed, exhaling a heavy sigh as he forced himself to think back to the terrifying encounter. "He looked like Diego, at least at first..." He said, his brow furrowing as he glanced around suddenly, scanning the gym for his best friend.

"Whoa, plot twist." Zahra drawled, nodding her head thoughtfully. "Keep going." She ordered, her attention focused on him as Taylor shifted uncomfortably, upon failing to find his best friend in the crowd.

"Well, once I figured out it wasn't actually Diego..." Taylor said, glancing around nervously, before leaning closer to Zahra, though he was careful to avoid her ghost friends personal space. "It attacked me." He whispered, not wanting anyone to overhear his confession. When he was sure nobody was listening, he cleared his throat and pushed on quietly. "Then its face kind of melted off, and underneath the skin was just... dirt. Like a... I don't know..." He said, rubbing a hand through his hair distractedly.

"A golem." Zahra said confidently, narrowing her eyes briefly, before bidding sharply, seeming to have come to some decision.

"A... golem?" Taylor repeatedly, trying to think whether he knew what such a being was. He vaguely recalled something from an old mythology class, but couldn't recall the details. "What's that?" He finally decided to ask, giving up on remembering for himself.

"A humanoid form usually crafted from dirt or clay, animated by a supernatural force." Zahra explained easily, as if she had swallowed an encyclopedia on everything supernatural. Taylor wouldn't put it past her if she had. "Sounds like it fits the bill." She said, concluding her explanation as she looked over at him expressionlessly.

"I guess." Taylor hummed in agreement, frowning as he absently reached for his throat. "The weirdest thing is that I woke up this morning, and it was gone... Why would it just attack me, and then leave?" He asked in exasperation, suddenly having thirty new questions explode into his brain, to replace his previous one.

"Full disclosure, my knowledge of golems is like; sixty percent Wikipedia and forty percent this dude named 'MagicStan-SeventyFive', who I met on a warlock forum..." Zahra warned, her lips twitching in amusement as Taylor rolled his eyes. "Maybe whatever animated the golem is temporary. Or maybe it was all a dream." She said, shrugging her shoulders.

Taylor shuddered, glancing around before feeling at his neck again. "Definitely not a dream." He said firmly, meeting Zahra's curious gaze with a determined one of his own. "Dreams don't leave bruises." He said pointedly, as Zahra shrugged again.

"They can, actually." She informed him, her face scrunching thoughtfully. "There are beings who can enter, or even affect your dreams. One of those, could probably use your dreams to hurt you." She paused suddenly, an excitedly gleam entering her scarlet gaze, her specialised contact lenses adding to her sinister aura. "You could also be under a curse or something. I've read a lot about cursed dreams." She said eagerly, successfully drawing Taylor from his growing concerns.

"What, just for fun?" He asked, snickering as Zahra's cheeks coloured and she pointedly averted her eyes, skimming over Craig in the front row unconsciously. 

"Sure, let's go with that." She said dismissively, as Taylor laughed and glanced down at Craig himself briefly.

"You know, Zahra..." He said, smirking as he reached over and offered his fist to her. "I think I'm kinda in love with you, right now."

"Pfft," Zahra snorted, laughing as she bumped her fist to his. "If I didn't know how impossible that were for you, I would say I don't blame you. I mean, I am amazing." She sniggered, smirking as Taylor pouted at her. "Unlucky for you, just about the whole school, ne town, knows about your preferences."

"I take no shame in being the only one to stand up and declare myself at that rally." Taylor huffed with a dry laugh, though his cheeks tinged with pink. "I admit though, that I didn't expect the ramifications to last quite this long..."

"You're as humble as me, I see." Zahra snorted, shaking her head in fond exasperation as she rolled her eyes and turned back to her sketchbook. Taylor smiled, allowing a moment of peaceful silence fo settle over them, before scooting closer through Zahra's ghost friend and wrapping an arm around her shoulder. "Hey, no touching." Zahra scowled immediately, shoving him off as he laughed a d glancing around with her cheeks stained red. "Someone might see me associating with you, loser."

"Thanks, Zahra." Taylor chuckled, moving away again as Zahra smirked down at her lap. "I really needed to talk to someone, but I didn't think anyone would believe me." He said, sighing in relief for having vented the stifling secret of the previous night.

"Hmm." Zahra hummed, scribbling in her sketchbook a moment longer. "Jury's still out on me believing you." She said vaguely, looking up at him skeptically. "You could be making all this up to screw with me."

Taylor frowned, wrinkling his nose in distaste. "Do... people do that to you?" He asked, his brow furrowing as he considered how another of his former friends had been treated over the years they'd drifted apart. And yet, we can talk now as if no time has passed between us... He thought fondly, a warm glow sparking within his chest.

"They try," Zahra snorted, a sly grin spreading across her face as she winked at him conspiratorially. "But my kung fu is strong."

"Well," Taylor huffed, shaking his head and grinning back at her. "Then thanks for listening, without immediately dismissing me." He said, feeling the warmth in his chest spread through his veins. "It helps a lot."

"Rad." Zahra said flippantly, tipping her chin at him briefly. "Glad to help." She added, and after a brief pause, Taylor realised she genuine meant it. "Okay, I think I'm done now." She said, sighing as she turned back to her sketchbook.

"Uh, done with..." Taylor prompted, raising a brow at her as she snorted at his blatant prodding.

"Obviously, not you." She said, rolling her eyes as Taylor visibly preened at her. "But you know, being nice." She added quickly, her expression quickly morphing back to her familiar blankness. "See, I've got this whole bitter misanthrope thing going on. If people see us being all friendly, they might think its like, okay to talk to me." She said snidely, glaring at Taylor accusingly as he merely grinned goofily at her.

"Can't have that." Taylor snickered, utterly unaffected by the sinister girls angry scowl.

"I would literally die." Zahra said flatly, turning her glare back to her sketchbook. Taylor laughed quietly, as he picked up his bag from the floor by his feet, and started edging back towards the stairs. "Hey, Taylor." Zahra called suddenly, and Taylor looked back to see her watching him closely.

"Yeah?" He asked, raising a brow at her as she slowly broke out in a rare, genuine smile.

"... You're not as big a tool as most people." She said, surprising another laugh from Taylor as he shook his head at her.

"Coming from you, that means a lot." He snorted, as she nodded her head in proud agreement of his statement.

"Yes, it does." She said seriously, and Taylor felt the warmth again spread through him, slipping from the edge of the bench to the stairs with a huff of fond amusement.

He made his way down the bleachers as they continued to fill, looking for any place he could squeeze in. Finally he spotted one empty one, next to a familiar figure, slouching in the second row. Oh, crap... He thought, swallowing thickly as his memories from years before tried to swarm over him. He quickly turned around, desperately scanning the crowd for another open seat, any seat but that one; but to no avail. He briefly considered trying to sneak back out of the gym doors, until someone shouted at him from a few rows higher up.

"Yo, Taylor!" Craig called, scowling as he no doubt recalled Taylors teasing from in the hallway earlier. "Sit your dork ass down, unless you wanna watch from the garbage can!" He growled, cracking his knuckles threateningly.

Taylor scoffed, his expression hardening as he glared at the jock. "I..." He began, before falling silent as Estela sighed and turned her sharp gaze towards him.

"You're blocking our view." She said quietly, and Taylor swallowed heavily at the familiar calm of the strange girl, as she pointed to the seat he'd been trying to avoid. "There's a spot right there." She said blankly, either genuinely unaware of Taylors attempt to avoid the seat, or entirely uncaring and just desiring him to move.

Wincing, Taylor turned back around slowly, to find Raj looking right at him. "Hey, Raj." Taylor said awkwardly, rubbing his hand over the back of his neck to try and hide his discomfort. "Do you mind if..?"

"Knock yourself out, dude." Raj said, scooting his large frame over and allowing Taylor to squeeze in beside him.

"Thanks." Taylor muttered, glancing up at the large, chocolate skinned boy briefly. "So... What's been up with you?" He hedged, clearing his throat as he tried to fight the awkward desire to grab his things and bolt from the gym. "I mean, we haven't really talked since..."

"Yeah..." Raj said, nodding absently, his usual humour blanketed by a thick aura of regret and guilt. "I know." He added, as he and Taylor sat side by side, neither saying another word as they averted their eyes from each other, a pregnant and awkward silence falling over them.

Taylor caught movement from the corner of his eye and he sat slightly straighter as a tall, handsome guy with shocking white hair and a pale complexion walked up to the podium, scowling around the gym imperiously. "Greetings, Westchester High." He said, rolling his eyes as the students roared in response. 

"Whoa..." Taylor gasped, when the bleachers rumbled and shook beneath him, as the crowd pounded their feet on the wood. "When the hell did Aleister get so..." He paused, tilting his head as he looked around the hall, before appraising the patiently waiting boy at the podium across the gym. "Hot..?" He muttered, coughing briefly in embarrassment, as he heard Raj sigh beside him.

"Yeah, yeah." The large boy said, rolling his eyes as he pulled his long curly hair back and tied it into a bun atop his head, before pulling a large beanie hat over the top. "Everyone loves the tall guy with the cool hair." He sighed, as Aleister waited stoically for the crowd to simmer down.

"Yes, well." The pale boy finally sneered, unfolding his arms from his chest as he gripped and leaned upon the sides of the podium box. "Welcome back, everyone... And Craig." He said, smirking at the outraged 'bro!' which rolled through the gym amid amused snickers. "For any neanderthals who aren't aware already, I am Aleister Rourke, your student body president." He said, straightening to his full imposing height, as he slowly peered around the gym. "I know most of you idiots are inconsolable that your summer playtime is over, but trust me when I tell you, this is going to be one school year; you'll never, forget." He said, pushing away from the podium box and moving beside it, gesturing toward the back of the gym bleachers. "And on that note, let us see in the start of this little pep rally, Westchester Wolf style."

At Aleister's signal, several cheerleaders jumped up from the bleachers, bouncing and waving their pom poms on the air. "You can do better than that!" Cried a lively girl with grey eyes and vivid red hair tied in a high ponytail with a ribbon. She waved her pom poms high over her head as she winked at the students seated in the bleachers before her. "Let's hear it!" She called again, eliciting a loud roar of cheering from the crowd.

"Wow," Taylor breathed, clucking his tongue as he watched her rile up the audience. "Looks like Rebecca's doing pretty well too..." He said, whooping along with the rest of the crowd suddenly to show his support for another of his former friends. One by one, the cheerleaders tumbled across the gym. Rebecca drew thunderous cheers, as she pulled off an effortless roundoff into a backflip, and Taylor shot to his feet as he clapped wildly. "Whoa! That's incredible!" He cried, cheering loudly for the redhead as she grinned at the crowd. 

"Yay." Raj said, waving his hand as if he held an invisible, miniature flag. "Go team." 

Rebecca beamed around the crowd a moment longer, before glancing back at the rest of the cheer squad, her smile suddenly faltering, as she locked eyes with Michelle. Rebecca turned, and suddenly tripped over her own feet, sprawling onto her face. "Aaahhh!" She cried, trying to hide from the sudden burst of laughter in the gym.

"Rebecca!" Taylor cried, launching into the aisle and hurrying down the steps, leaping the final three to reach Rebecca quicker and help her to her feet. "Oh my god, are you okay?" He asked worriedly, brushing a loose strand of hair from her face as she gazed up at him in surprise. "What happened?" He asked quietly, frowning as Rebecca immediately began to shake her head.

"Nothing..." She said quickly, glancing around in barely concealed agitation. "I'm just a klutz, I guess." She said, averting her eyes from Taylor and trying to make herself small so she could hide from the crowd, a fae cry from her usually confident personality.

"You think you're a klutz..?" Taylor said slowly, his brows furrowing deeper, as she refused to meet his eyes. He sighed, pushing aside his suspicions and pasting an encouraging smile to his face, as he shook his head in disbelief. "You did a freaking, kickass backflip!" He said, chafing her arms gently as he tried to catch her eye. "Seriously dude, if that's what a klutz looks like, then sign me up for klutz lessons. I need me some skills like that to get my boring ass noticed."

Rebecca finally gave up trying to hide from him, looking up to meet his gaze with a warm if somewhat exasperated smile. "Thanks, Taylor... You're still a sweetheart." She said fondly, gripping his arm tightly in gratitude for a moment.

"I try." Taylor said lightly, shrugging nonchalantly as he winked at her. She chuckled quietly, allowing him to comfort her by drawing her into a brief hug.

"Hmm, what do you know? Something unexpected happened." Estela's voice called down from.the bleachers, and Taylor looked up with a frown to see her watching them with obvious interest. "I gotta admit, that was an interesting sound her face made, right when it met the floor."

"Please tell me the school news nerds got that on camera, bro..." Craig laughed loudly, as Taylor scowled and clenched his hand into a tight fist at his side.

Rebecca blushed, pulling away from Taylor as she lowered her eyes and rejoined the rest of the squad. Taylor frowned, moving back to his seat, while at the front of the gym, Michelle stepped forward with a smug smile. "Check this out..." She said, winking at the crowd as she took three running steps, before flying into a no handed cartwheel. The crowd roared around Taylor, as she sticked the landing perfectly, but he couldn't bring himself to join in; instead gazing down at Rebecca's lowered, reddened face.

"Why the hell do people like her so much?" He demanded, forgetting his awkwardness with Raj, as he scowled down at the blonde and shook his head in confusion. "They've gotta know how horrible she is under all that make up."

"And?" Raj scoffed, digging a small bag of homemade cookies out of his pocket. "She's hot and she can do flips. We can't compete with that." He said, popping a cookie in his mouth and sighing as he began to crunch it loudly.

Aleister smiled politely from the podium, clapping dutifully as the cheerleaders returned to their seats. "Well, now that the cheer squad are done with their little display..." The pale boy said stiffly, gesturing instead towards the gym doors. "Let us give a round of applause, to the Westchester Wolves basketball team." He said reluctantly, as a group of guys in basketball jerseys filed in through the entrance and gathered together in front of the podium.

"Awooooooo!" Howled a guy whose name Taylor had never bothered to learn, knowing only that he was a huge homophobe, racist and pretty much everything else nasty under the sun.

"Yeah!" Boomed a deep, honeyed voice. "Go Wolves!" They called amid loud cheering, and Taylor turned his gaze to a dark skinned boy he recognised easily, despite being several times larger than he remembered. He smiled as Sean beamed around the crowd, his jersey practically bursting at its seams over his muscles.

"Huh," Raj hummed, looking down at the team in surprise. "Sean actually made the team this year." He said, before popping another cookie in his mouth.

"Good for him!" Taylor cheered, clapping loudly and winking when Sean looked his way and smiled. "It looks like he's been working hard for what he wants!" He said defensively, beaming as he stuffed his fingers in his mouth and whistled at Sean, winking when he saw the large boy shake his head at him ruefully. "I can't wait to see him play!"

"Yeah, I bet that's what you wanna see him do..." Raj huffed, casting a sideways grin at him, as Taylor laughed guiltily, relaxing around the other boy for the first time as Raj finally smiled at him.

He flinched however, as Craig's voice broke through the general applause. "Watch out, it's the Heisman Traitor!"

Sean's gaze rose in the direction of Craig's voice, the pair locking into a heated glaring match, as Sean clenched his hand into a ball and firmly glued his jaw shut. The atmosphere turned ominous, as the former quarterback star and his former best friend, glared at each other intently. Finally however, Sean's attention was stolen, by Aleister calling the team captain up to the podium.

"Thanks, Al." The captain said, ignoring the venomous glare he received for the shortening of Aleister's name. "What's up, Westchester High?" He cried, raising both hands to the crowd and earning himself loud whoops and stomps in response. "We've got our first game coming up in a couple days, so you guys had better be here to watch us crush it!" Taylor ignored the team captain, instead watching Sean as he grimaced, clearly finding the fighting talk unnecessary. Taylor bit his lip as he felt his heart go out to his former friend, guessing exactly where his thoughts would have turned to.

"Not gonna lie, we've got a couple rookies on the team this year..." The team captain conceded with a dramatic sigh, his eyes flitting toward Sean briefly before he turned another near manic grin to the crowd before him. "But, I'm not gonna let that stop-"

The team captain paused, as the gyms lights flickered suddenly. "Huh?" He wondered aloud, frowning at the ceiling in wide eyed confusion.

"Oh no..." Taylor murmured, sensing a familiar coldness to the previous night in his heart, as the gym fell entirely into an unnaturally thick darkness. 

Aleister's voice called over the speakers, drowning out the nervous chatter of the other students. "Now, now, you fools, stay seated." He drawled, his words reassuringly calm despite the bite of irritation in them. "We wouldn't want anyone to fall to their doom now, wo- ksssshhhhhhhkkk!" A burst of static cut him off, as the music stuttered, fading in and out of hearing.

A loud bang resounded through the gym, as the far doors were blown open by a frigid gust of wind. Moments later, the lights flickered back on, and Taylor nearly jumped clean out of his seat, as Raj suddenly grabbed his arm.  "Gah!" He yelped, his brow creasing as he turned to the larger boy with a scowl. "What are you-"

"Shut up." Raj breathed lowly, his eyes wide as he stared vacantly toward the front of the gym. "Do you hear that?!" He demanded, his fingers alternately clutching at and releasing Taylors arm.

"Hear what?" Taylor fumed, attempting to tug his arm free of the other boy.

"Ssssshhhhhh!" Raj urged, pressing a large finger to his lips as he seemed to both hold his breath and cock his head in horrified curiosity.

Taylor was about to scoff that of course he didn't hear the nothing that wasn't there, when suddenly; he did hear it. He swallowed, glancing at Raj uncertainly, before tuning back into the strange phenomena. Just at the edge if his perception, he heard a sound which snatched all of his breath from his body and left him as cold as ice. "No..." Taylor whispered, shaking his head as he tried to tell himself the things he heard weren't real. "Not here..." He gasped, panic creeping into his heart like wriggling fingers tangling in his hair. 

He looked around, picking out the faces of his former friends in the hall. "What the-" Sean denied, shaking his head from the front of the gym, as he met Taylors gaze.

"This cannot be!" Aleister cried, his eyes wide as he did the same as Taylor and glanced around everyone from where he stood at the front of the gym.

Taylor turned when he heard gasps from a group behind him, to see Quinn looking paler than usual, gripping her textbook tightly as she rocked back and forth slightly. "N-no way..." She muttered repeatedly, shaking her head roughly.

"Oh my god..!" Rebecca's cry had him turning sharply, and he found the other redhead a few seats away in the first row and to his right, her arms clapped tightly to her ears.

"Oh fu-" Zahra's blatant curse rang through the gym, as the music spluttered and died entirely, the lights shutting off completely once more and leaving them trapped in the darkness with only the voice.

A voice, which was at once completely alien; and horribly familiar. "Everyone..." It whispered, as a splinter of terror coursed up Taylors spine. "Plays..." Taylor swallowed thickly, shaking his head as felt his heart lurch fearfully on the darkness, already knowing what the voice would say next. "Together..." As the voice hissed the final word of their old rules, Taylor was swept away by an inescapable tide of memories, to a childhood he had tried to keep from his mind for ten years.

Chapter Text

3.

What Are You Afraid Of?

Ten Years Ago...

Autumn sun sifted through the trees, as Taylor followed one of his best friends deep into the woods. "Dude, where are we going?" He called, his short legs catching on a particularly large tree root, causing him to stumble. "Hey..!" He yelped, catching himself with his arms against the thick trunk, the rough bark scratching against his palms. "Your mom's gonna kill us if she finds out we went this far by ourselves!" He called warningly, frowning after his friend as he reached up to brush aside the red hair which just fell into his eyes. 

"I know..." Called his friend, though their excited tone revealed just how little this fact bothered his friend right then. "But you've gotta see it! Just a li'l further..." They promised, leading the way deeper into the woods, as Taylor huffed and pouted, but followed dutifully behind them.

His friend led him to the edge of a clearing, pointing proudly to a crumbling stone building on the other side. Taylors eyes widened as he stared in awe, drinking in the strange building curiously. Huge pillars supported what may have been a porch like structure, except it had decayed too far to tell for certain. A tree had fallen sideways, but continued to grow, its branches stretching up over what remained of the porch like ledge, and curling through two of the three small windows there. "Whoa..." He breathed, moving to stand beside his gleeful friend, as they peered into the dark entrance curiously. "What is this place?" He whispered, leaning towards his friend, though he didn't take his eyes from the strange, abandoned building.

"Dunno!" His friend chuckled back, turning excited eyes to Taylor, before dipping to scoop up a pebble from the ground. "But watch this..." They said as they rose, winking as they tossed the pebble at the house. Taylor gasped as it sailed straight over the threshold, then stopped suddenly; still suspended in mid air. 

"No way..." Taylor breathed, staring in fascination as the pebble hung in the air for another moment longer, before finally dropping straight down to the ground. "That is so awesome!" He cried, his fear of his friends mother forgotten, as he was overcome with excitement. "Lemme try!" He said eagerly, quickly picking up his own pebble and chucking it into the decrepit doorway. It hit the same invisible barrier as his friends pebble had, pausing in the air briefly, before dropping straight to the ground. "So cooool..!" He cheered, exchanging a giggling high five with his friend, as they stared at the long abandoned and overgrown house. "I wonder what's inside." He said suddenly, an excited grin which revealed his latest missing tooth, spreading across his face.

"Inside?" His friend choked, their eyes widening in surprise. "W-we can't go inside!" They cried, eyeing the building dubiously, before turning to Taylor in nervous disbelief.

"How come?" He asked, his toothy grin remaining as he waggled his eyebrows playfully. "It's not like anyone lives here anymore. Look," he said, pointing to where a tree protruded through the decrepit building. "There's holes in the roof."

"What if you're wrong?" His friend asked, biting their lip uncertainly as they glanced around, as if expecting someone to jump out and scare then away from the house at any moment. "What if we get in trouble?" They added lowly, wringing their hands together as Taylor snorted and rolled his eyes.

"More than we will for coming out here in the first place, you mean?" He asked, sniggering as his friend ignored him, while they both continued to stare at the house.

"What if something... bad happens?" His friend whispered, as if scared to be overheard. Taylor finally looked over at them, to see they'd balled their hands into tight little fists to keep from wringing them, though their lower lip still trembled.

"Hey..." Taylor said suddenly, smiling as his friend turned towards him. "You got your birthday present with you?" He asked, feeling a hopeful excitement flicker through his chest. His friend sniffled and nodded, reaching beneath their collar to pull out an old whistle, hanging from a necklace chain. "Good!" Taylor said, eyeing the whistle fondly, as he thought back to his friends recent birthday. "Do you remember what I said, when I gave it to you?"

"Th-that if I ever get scared, I should blow on the whistle and... you'll come and protect me." His friend said, blushing faintly as they peeked up at him from beneath long lashes. They took a deep breath and raised the whistle to their lips, blowing a high trill which rose and fell, as it echoed through the clearing. "Hee..." They giggled, biting their lip to contain their fond grin.

"You're one of my best friends ever, dude." Taylor said, offering his fist and bumping it to his friends when they returned the gesture. "I'm not gonna let anything bad happen to you." He promised, glancing back to the ruins eagerly. He could almost hear the stones calling, reaching fir him. His feet shuffled in place, itching to close the distance, before looking at his still unconvinced friend. He hesitated, before he broke out Inna sly grin, holding his hands behind his back as he rocked on the balls of his feet and feigned a heavy sigh of remorse. "But... but if you're too scared, we can just go ho-"

"I'm not scared!" His friend snapped immediately, scowling over at Taylor, as they took the bait as he had known they would. The fierceness faded from their expression, their eyes again clouding with uncertainty, as they stepped closer to him. "Just... promise me you'll watch out for me?" They asked, their voice unusually small in their hesitance.

"Promise!" Taylor said proudly, puffing his small chest out as he flashed his toothy grin. "I'll even go first." He giggled, as his friend rolled their eyes and huffed in exasperation and resignation combined. With his heart thrumming excitedly in his chest, Taylor walked straight up to the doorway, reaching out to feel the space inside.

"I-is there something there?" His friend called in a loud whisper, their footsteps slowly crunching closer over the undergrowth just behind him. "Does it hurt?" They asked worriedly, as Taylor's eyes widened.

"It feels..." He breathed, looking at his hand in awe, as what felt like a small electrical current tickled his hand. "Tingly." He settled on, cocking his head as he raised his eyes to the darkness beyond his hand. He took a deep breath, and as he stepped into the threshold the tingling spread over his whole body, before stopping suddenly. He smiled widely, and continued into the dark room beyond.

Darkness surrounded him like a fog, almost thick enough to touch. Taylor shivered, his smile faltering as he suddenly became certain that there was something in there with him. Watching him. "H-hello?" He called, his voice small and lacking the confidence he'd shown when convincing his friend it was a good idea to explore the abandoned house. His words echoed strangely in the hollow space, and the voice which returned to him; was not entirely his own.

"... hellLOoo..." 

"Is... someone there?" Taylor called, squinting ahead of himself blindly and wishing he could make out anything beyond the thick darkness. "What's your name?" He tried again, frowning as he tried to see any kind of light through the gloom.

"... nnnnaaaame..?"

Taylor gasped as the leaves at his feet blew aside, brushing against his slightly too long trouser cuffs on the ground. A light seemed to seep through the darkness, illuminating a small patch of smooth, gray stone where the leaves had been. His eyes widened, for as he watched thin lines began to appear in the hard surface. Taylor swallowed, raising his gaze as the light faded, and he was left again in the gloom. "Redfield..." He said slowly, frowning as he considered the name, totally unfazed by the mystical and potentially ominous way it had appeared before him. "Sounds cute!" He said, breaking out in his toothy grin again as his nose wrinkled in amusement. "Hee hee! Like a teddy bear!" He giggled, bouncing on the balls of his feet as he looked around the darkness in curiosity. "Nice to meet you, Mr. Red! I'm Taylor!"

"Taylor..." The echo repeated, a dry rasp among the shadows. Taylor smiled and hummed in affirmation, his excitement returning as his eyes slowly began to adjust to the dark room. Squinting again, ge was just able to make out what looked like stairs in the far corner, which disappeared into a jagged hole in the floor.

"Taylor..?" His friend called from outside, sounding nervous and concerned about his long absence. "Is it safe? Who are you talking to?" They called worriedly, though Taylor was distracted from replying by something in the darkness.

"Hang on a sec..." He called back towards the entrance, shuffling carefully towards the stairs, where he thought he saw something glinting. "I think there's something-" Wind suddenly howled up through the hole in the floor, knocking Taylor clean off his feet. "Aaaaahhhhh!" He cried, rolling to his front and scrabbling desperately for something to hold onto. The wind reversed direction, slowly dragging Taylor toward the abyss as he cried out fearfully. He dug his fingers into a crack in the floor, just barely resisting against the harsh pull.

"Taylor?!" His friend yelled desperately, and Taylor looked up to see them illuminated in the entranceway, staring after him fearfully.

"Run!" Taylor screamed back urgently, and his heart leaped with relief as he saw his friend turn and try to run away as he'd demanded through the doorway. However moments later he cried out in dismay, as the unnatural wind howled after them, snatching them up before they'd even made it three steps.

"Yiiieeeeee!" His friend cried, as they slid past him, scrambling for purchase on the uneven floor.

"No!" Taylor yelled over the howl of the wind, as his friend managed to pause their own journey to the abyss as he had, though their necklace chain broke with a sharp snap in the process. Within seconds, the whistle vanished down the hole in the floor.

"Taylor!" His friend gasped, their sad gaze turning towards him as they struggled against the wind. "I c-can't hold on! I'm... slipping!" They choked, as they began to cry.

Seeing his friends tearful face so terrified, Taylors fear suddenly ignited into anger. Furious, he scowled over his shoulders into the howling darkness behind them. "Stop it, Mr. Red!" He screamed, his every word dripping with hateful vehemence. "Stop it right now, or else..." He yelled, pausing as he sucked in several sharp gasps of air between furious growls. "Or else my friends are gonna come and burn your stupid house down!" He screamed suddenly, and as soon as the furious words left his mouth; the wind died, and the house fell still at last. Cautiously, Taylor pushed himself up, while his friend sobbed quietly a few feet away, still clinging tightly to the floor.

"Hey..." He murmured, hurrying to his friends side. "Hey, c'mon! Let's get out of here." He said, his heart swamped by guilt as his terrified friend looked up at him with a tear streaked face.

"M-my whistle..." They sniffled weakly, glancing back towards the ominous hole in the floor, as they sat up and allowed Taylor to wrap his arms around them. "It took my whistle..."

"I know..." Taylor panted, his throat sore from his screaming into the darkness. "But we've gotta go, before it changes its mind, and takes us too!" He said urgently, brushing his sweat soaked hair from his eyes.

His friend nodded as they let Taylor pull them to their feet, before the two of them sprinted out the front door into the blazing sunlight beyond, holding hands tightly as they raced away from the house. At the edge of the clearing, Taylor couldn't resist pausing to look back one final time. He panted, eyeing the ruins dubiously as they sat still and quiet, showing no signs of life at all. "Taylor, come on!" His friend pleaded, tugging at his hand urgently, before giving up and moving further away from the abandoned house.

Taylor swallowed thickly, blinking as if just awakening out of a strange daydream. "Coming..." He muttered, finally turning away to hurry after his friend. Behind him, he could hear a soft whistle rise and fall, as it echoed through the clearing.

Present day...

Taylor shook his head, exhaling a shaky sigh as he tapped his foot against the side of his desk nervously. For the remainder if the day, ever since the terrifying experience during the pep rally, his mind had been racing with thoughts and feelings he'd tried his best to repress for the past decade. He glanced around the room as he scrubbed his hand over his jaw, confirming for the hundredth time that Diego wasn't in class. His heart lurched, his thoughts returning to the panicked texts he'd received from Diego. He thought back to the first terrifying experience in that house, where he and his friend had barely managed to escape; and of course, he thought of him.

If Redfield is really back... then Diego is in danger. He panicked internally, worrying his lip as he did another quick, futile sweep of his class. And we have to help him. He thought, firmly telling himself that he wasn't terrified by the very thought of having to return to the woods.

"Now," called the science teacher Mrs. Montoya, from the front of the class. "If you could all turn to page one oh two in your textbooks..." She said, turning away to begin writing on a large white board. Taylor glanced around the room again, before slipping his phone from his pocket, relived he had been able to charge it briefly during the previous class. He held it beneath his desk and quickly opened up a new group text.

This is Taylor. We need to talk. He sent, biting his lip and wincing when he broke the skin. He glanced up to see Mrs. Montoya was still busy, her back still turned to the class.

Hey Taylor. Quinn sent, his phone vibrating silently in his hand as he looked back at the screen. He was relieved to see the redhead reply, glad she wasn't too shaken to respond.

Yo. Zahra replied, with no further elaboration. Taylor furrowed his brow, half tempted to simply get up and leave his class. If what they all now suspected was real, then he didn't think attending class should be too high on his list of priorities.

Sup. Raj's reply made Taylors heart lurch, and he knew the large boy would be the most shaken after the mornings upheaval. He rubbed his arm absently, recalling the sudden and intense grip of the large boy.

Whoa, what the hell Stalker Boy, how did you get my number??? Rebecca demanded, and Taylor rolled his eyes as he fought to keep himself from snickering aloud.

Bathroom cubicle on the third floor. He sent back, smirking as he imagined her outrage. He felt a brief flicker of guilt, knowing he shouldn't take such amusement from the childish prod, but he also couldn't resist; it had been a fair while since he'd seen the redhead lose her cool.

What the hell??! You go and scrub it off, right now or so help me I WILL END YOU. Rebecca replied, and Taylor couldn't contain his brief chuckle, quickly hiding his phone and burying his nose in his textbook, as Mrs. Montoya turned around for a moment. He kept half an eye on the suspicious teacher, waiting until she turned to continue her writing, before quickly grabbing his phone again.

Dude, I'm kidding. It's on your facespace. He sent, his lips twitching as he reread the girls obviously furious message. He shook his head, snickering as he imagined her both irritated and relieved by his confession.

Wow, creeper much. Also, I hate you. She finally replied, and Taylor bit his finger, finding the tease to be well worth the effort for her reactions.

No you don't. He sent confidently, even attaching a winking emoji to the end of his message. He grinned lopsidedly, able to imagine her frustrated huff and reluctant grin.

No... I don't... Rebecca sent back, with a weary sighing emoji. Taylor couldn't help the snort of laughter which escaped him, and he hurried to cover the sound by coughing into his palm. Mrs. Montoya glanced at him, but paid him no mind, as she immediately returned her attention to her detailed notes. Taylor grinned as he felt his phone vibrate in his lap, glancing around quickly before returning his eyes to his screen.

Taylor, what'd you wanna talk about? Sean had sent, refocusing Taylor to his original point, rather than bantering with Rebecca. His fingers hovered over the keys, not really wanting to type the words, but knowing he had to.

The pep rally... He sent quickly, before he could stop himself. After a long pause of determined silence, he scowled at his phone, already knowing what everyone was doing. Don't pretend you don't know what I mean. He sent, attaching an irritated emoji to the message for emphasis. For a moment, he thought everyone was going to continue ignoring him, but then he was surprised by a message from the person he least expected to reply.

When and where you wanna meet, doodlejump? Raj asked, and Taylor felt conflicted by the guilt and relief which swelled in his heart for the large boys support.

By the fountain. He quickly replied, glancing up at the clock on the wall above the white board. After school. He quickly typed out, sending the message off after the first.

Can't. I've got practice until six. Rebecca replied, almost instantly. Taylor scowled at the screen, about to accuse her of being deliberately difficult, when another message pinged into the chat.

Same. Sean said, and Taylor grit his teeth, looking over to the window as he swallowed down his frustration, wondering if Diego even had that long to wait for them. His phone vibrated in his hand, and he glanced back st the screen to see a new message waiting for him. Meet after?

Guys this is serious. He sent back, his hand clenching around his phone as he tried to hold back the fear which was trying to wheedle its way into his heart. Diego... Please be okay. I can't lose you too. He thought, swallowing thickly at the tide of emotions which welled up within him.

I can't just ditch, we have a game coming up! Sean defended himself, and Taylor had to ball his hand into a tight ball, to keep from viciously reminding his friend how unlikely it was he would even be allowed to play in the game. He sucked in a deep, shuddering breath and forced himself to relax slowly, finally slamming his fingers against the keys to type out a reply.

Fine. We meet at six. He sent, frowning as guilt and nausea churned within his gut. Hold on, Diego. He thought, hoping that maybe he might be able to stop by his friends house on the way home to find he had simply been out sick all day. But then he would have replied to at least one of my texts... unless, maybe he's sleeping? He thought, biting his lip again and wincing at the sharp sting from the open wound he'd made.

See ya there, doodlejumps. Raj text back and Taylor sighed, as he moved to run a hand through his hair, only to pause when his phone vibrated again. Oh hey dude, I think you forgot to add Aleister to this group...

Oh crap, you're right. Taylor cursed silently, frustrated he had forgotten to add the pale boy to their chat. Hang on, let m- Taylor was almost finished writing his text, when his phone died again. "Augh! What the hell-" He growled in frustration, scowling at the blank screen hatefully.

"Taylor. Nice of you to volunteer." Mrs. Montoya called, as Taylor snapped his head up guiltily to find her watching him knowingly, her arms folded over her chest as she stepped to the side of her desk. "Since you're so obviously paying attention, perhaps you'll know the answer to my question..." She said, pausing expectantly as Taylor internally panicked and tried to recall even the briefest snippet from his class.

"Uhhh..." He finally floundered, throwing the teacher what he hoped was a winning grin as his classmates began to snicker. Mrs. Montoya stared Taylor down, utterly unaffected by his attempt to win her over.  He cleared his throat and puffed his cheeks out sheepishly, as Aleister caught his eyes from a few rows up. The pale boy raised a brow, and then rolled his eyes as he slipped his hand beneath his desk and opened it toward him. From the angle Taylor sat at, he could just make out the words scrawled across Aleister's palm, as the pale boy continued to write in his textbook with his other hand, very picture of perfect indifference. "Ahem... C-U-S-O-four... Copper sulfate..?" He coughed awkwardly, attempting to appear confident as Mrs. Montoya raised an eyebrow at him.

"Well, you certainly kept us in suspense there, Taylor..." She said at last, eyeing him firmly for a moment longer, before finally looking back to her board. "But, you are correct." She said, just as the bell began to ring. "Class dismissed, do not forget your assignments are due in a week." She called firmly, as all around them, students began to hurriedly pack up their things. 

Taylor quickly slipped from his seat, making his way over to Aleister hurriedly, only for Mrs. Montoya to beat him there. "Mr. Rourke, a word?" She said, as Aleister dipped his head respectfully.

"Of course." He said, never even glancing at Taylor as he looked after the pale boy worriedly, before turning back to his desk to collect his things. He slung his bag over his shoulder and moved out into the hall, where he leaned against the wall near an outlet, charging his phone again while he waited and kept an eye out for Aleister.

"Stupid phone..." He muttered, scowling at the device in his hand. "I just charged you. Talk about greedy." He complained, as the hallways emptied around him and everyone headed home for the day. He looks around at the rapidly decreasing body of students, wondering vaguely what it might be like to have parents waiting eagerly for their child to return, before brushing the entire concept aside. I'm too old to be wishing for the kind of everyday family these assholes all have. He thought, shaking his head and snorting in amusement. As he waited in the hall, he gradually became aware of muffled voices inside the classroom he'd come from.

"... and I know what you're doing-" he heard Mrs. Montoya say gently but firmly, as Taylors brow slowly furrowed in confusion.

"... really, don't know what you're talking about, ma'am" Aleister drawled, sounding both hostile but respectful at the same time, a talent Taylor expected he would never quite master.

"You may have everyone else fooled young man, but you can't fool me." Mrs. Montoya continued, as Taylor hovered indecisively against the wall by the outlet.

"What the hell is going on in there..?" He wondered, his curiosity about his former close friend thankfully distracting him from his melancholy over his home life, or lack thereof. I should probably move away... He thought, biting his lip as he gazed at the door longingly, wishing he could hear more so he might be able to help the pale boy, should it turn out he was in trouble. I've never really been very good at sticking to what I should do. He thought, shivering as a familiar decrepit building flashed behind his eyes. And the consequences of that have been pretty severe at times... So I think I'll just, give Aleister some privacy. He wouldn't want me to hear this anyway. He finally sighed, unplugging his phone and stooping down to collect his bag, preparing to move further away from the door; when cold hands suddenly grabbed him from behind, covering his eyes.

"There you are..." A voice whispered sinisterly, as Taylors heart stuttered in shock and fear.

"Aaaaahhh!" He gasped, panic flooding his body as he struggled wildly against the strong hold of his captor, as he was dragged down the hall. "Nooo! Let me go! Let-" his desperate shouts turned to a gasp of pain, as he was shoved backwards into a wall. He heard a deafening slam, followed by muffled laughter. "Wha- hey!" He gasped, squirming to try and free himself from the small enclosed space he suddenly found himself in.

"Oh my god, you should totally see your face right now..." A voice laughed mockingly, as Taylor felt a rush of fury race through him, understanding blooming.

"School's back in session, Taylor!" Craig growled, as Taylor slammed his hands against the locker door they'd locked him in.

"Urgh, let me out, you assholes!" He yelled, scowling through the slats as the trio of bullies watched him struggle.

"You should let him go." Estela sighed, leaning against the opposite wall and clearly not as invested in the exchange as Craig and Michelle. "You've had your fun, he was scared. Can we go now?" She asked, sighing in boredom.

"Aw, but we're just making sure his school year starts with a bang!" Michelle commented lightly, stepping forward to kick the locker door; causing Taylor to yelp and cover his ears.

"Get comfy in there, bro." Craig snorted, grinning as he banged his fist against the door. "We'll come check in on you... tomorrow morning." He laughed, as he and Michelle moved away from the locker.

"Finally." Estela sighed, pushing away from her spot against the far wall and moving to follow her friends. She hesitated and Taylor scowled as she met his eyes through the slats of the locker, a hint of confliction in her gaze, before it faded and the girl turned away.

Craig and Michelle's laughter receded down the hallway, Estela's quiet footsteps hidden beneath their noise, leaving Taylor alone in the dark, cramped space. After several minutes of pushing, punching and swearing, the locker door still wouldn't budge, and Taylor slumped against the back wall in defeat. "Great. Just perfect." He growled scathingly, scowling as he banged his head back against the wall in irritation. I finally get the balls to ask everyone to meet, they finally agree, and I'm gonna miss the while damn thing because of an asshole who's got hurt feelings because his best frien-

"Taylor..." Called a voice from the hallway, and Taylor rolled his eyes as he snorted in frustration.

"What now?" He snapped, folding his arms over his chest irritably as he glared at the locker door before him. "You losers think of some more fun ways to torture me?" He demanded hotly.

"More... fun..." The voice repeated, and Taylor felt the first tendril of unease claw slowly at his heart, though he buried the feeling beneath his anger.

"Get lost already, Craig." He growled, slamming his palm against the locker door, and wincing at the loud bang which reverberated around him. "I'm not bloody scared of you! You're just a-"

Taylor gasped, as with a great bang, the entire locker began to shake around him. Shadows all around seemed to thicken, eating away at his anger to leave only the fear he'd buried beneath it. The air grew older, as the shadows closed in on him. Taylors heart raced, as he looked around himself, suddenly understanding what was truly happening. "N-not scared." He muttered, closing his eyes tightly and balling his hands into fists, leaning forward against the locker door. "I'm not scared..." He said, willing himself to believe the words. As a flash of an old, abandoned house in the woods flashed in his mind, Taylor felt his fear once more burn away into fury, and he opened his eyes to slam his fists against the locker door. "I'm not scared!" He yelled, only to cover his eyes quickly with his arms, as a flash of bright light blinded him.

"Wh-" he gasped, lowering his arms slowly to find himself staring around at a large expanse of woodland, the area having a familiar alluring, yet ominous feel to them.

"I'm not scared!" Roared a voice from behind him, and Taylor spun around, his eyes wide as he beheld his childhood friend staring up at him; their small hands balled tightly into fists. Behind them, the ruins loomed against a backdrop of twisted trees.

"What the..." Taylor breathed, returning his gaze to the small child before him, his heart pounding as he stared at then longingly. This can't be... He thought as he swallowed heavily, knowing all too well why it couldn't be real, but unable to help the panicked sense of protectiveness which swelled within him. "C'mon, we have to leave!" He cried, trying to reach out to his friend, only to find his body frozen in place. Night crept over the woods, as he struggled against his invisible prison.

His small friend watched him with huge, sad eyes as darkness bled from the doors and windows of the stone house, shadowy tendrils reaching out toward them. "Promise you'll watch out for me?" They whispered, as Taylor slumped against his invisible bindings, his heart breaking as he stared down at the child in desperate yearning a d guilt.

"I..." He choked, swallowing back his tears as he watched the tendrils of darkness curl ominously about his friends feet. "I didn't know what would happen..." He whispered brokenly, crying out suddenly as the darkness suddenly grabbed hold of his friend, snatching them back toward the ruins.

"Taylor!" They screamed, their small hands reaching out to him desperately, as the darkness swallowed them; before shadows exploded outward, a black hurricane howling towards him.

"No!" Taylor cried, closing his eyes as the darkness swirled around him, cutting off all his senses of the outside world. "Please! I'm sorry!" He cried, his hands rising to cover his face as he wept guiltily as he hadn't for almost ten years. "I'm so sor-" he began in a hoarse whisper, only to break off suddenly when his vision was flooded with light.

Taylor gasped frantically for air, as the locker door sprang open and he fell face first onto the hard floor. As his panic began to recede, he slowly realised that someone was kneeling over him. "Aleister..!" He gasped, gazing up at the concerned face of his pale, one time friend. He felt his heart stutter in relief, and he grabbed for the pale boys hand, panting for breath as he flashed the other boy a grateful grin. "My hero!"

"Indeed." Aleister said, rolling his eyes, though his lips twitched in amusement. "Sir Aleister, at your service, idiot." He snorted, as Taylor  grinned goofily in his palpable relief. Aleister helped Taylor to his feet, allowing him to brace himself against the pale boy, until the shaking in his legs had finally ceased.

"How'd you get the door open?" Taylor asked by way of distraction, his heart still thrumming with left over adrenaline, the nightmare vision of his young friends huge, sad eyes seared into the back of his eyelids; flashing within his mind whenever he blinked.

"I've been telling the school for years that they need to replace these old lockers." Aleister sneered, looking over the various metal doors, discreetly giving Taylor a chance to regain his composure. "Anyone can open them, if they know the trick." He said, glancing back at Taylor with a brief twitch of his lips. "I suppose its just as well they never took my advice after all."

"Definitely." Taylor agreed, beginning to dust himself off. "Very lucky for me. I hereby approve of the schools ignoring your advice." He said with a smirk, as Aleister huffed in vague amusement. Taylors smile faltered, as the pale boy glanced at his watch and heaved a weary sigh. "Late to something?" He asked gently, his brow furrowing in concern, as he watched Aleister's expression shutter closed, sealing his emotions away behind his perfectly blank facade.

"Merely a lot to do, as always. This place is severely lax in any proper student council work." Aleister said stiffly, sweeping his gaze over Taylor critically, before glancing back to the locker he'd helped him escape from. "Would you care to report this incident? I can escort you to the office, if you wish."

"I'm good," Taylor said, running a hand through his hair as he looked down to where his face had made intimate contact with the floor briefly. "Not like it'd do any good anyway. But..." He said, raising his eyes to Aleister, as he worried his sore lip nervously. "There's actually something else, I... need to talk to you about." He said hesitantly, his discomfort growing in the face of Aleister's unflinchingly stoic expression.

"Then, perhaps we may walk and talk?" Aleister suggested, raising a brow at him as he half turned away. "I still have several things which I must take care of, before I may head out." 

Taylor nodded, quickly grabbing his things from where he'd dropped them during his abduction, before the two of them set off down the hall at a brisk pace. "So, uh..." Taylor coughed, clearing his throat when Aleister pointedly remained silent as they walked. "It's about what happened, at the pep rally..."

"Hm? Oh, the blackout?" Aleister asked distractedly, briefly waving a dismissive hand in Taylors direction. "No need for concern. I have already compiled a maintenance report." He said, rolling his eyes with a snort. "Can't have the lights going out during the big basketball game, after all." He sneered sarcastically.

Taylor frowned at Aleister's formal, almost rehearsed response, barely managing to keep up with the taller boys long stride, despite his own long legs. "And the voice?" He asked, looking up just in time to see the briefest flicker of emotion pass through Aleister's clear blue eyes.

"I... have no idea what you're babbling about." The pale boy finally drawled, shrugging his shoulder dismissively.

"But-" Taylor protested, only to cut off abruptly as Aleister raised a hand to him and promptly disappeared into the auditorium. Taylor scowled after the elusive boy, his temper simmering as he exhaled heavily. He shook his head, and followed Aleister inside, leaning against the wall as he watched Aleister wave in greeting to a group of band kids on the stage.

"Yes, yes, excellent improvement from last week." Aleister called, before gesturing to his watch and glaring around the group sternly. "Just make sure you're finished and have cleared up after yourselves by quarter to four, remember?" He said, scowling at a snickering student until they wisely lowered their gaze. "The Drama club needs time to set up for their own slot." He said, as Taylor finally pushed away from the wall and stepped into Aleister's line of sight.

"Aleister, listen to me." He demanded, pleased when a flicker of surprise passed over Aleister's expression, as he looked down at Taylors frowning expression. "Diego might be in danger."

"Diego..?" Aleister queried, frowning as he tried to place the familiar name. Taylor felt his expression darken, his hand curling into a fist as he fought the urge to give up on decorum and just begin yelling at his former friend. "Soto?" Aleister scoffed suddenly, sneering as he shook his head dismissively. "I've not even spoken to him for years, let alone-"

"You sure about that?" Taylor demanded, recalling that morning when Quinn had mentioned receiving strange texts the previous night. He took a twisted sense of glee from the slip in Aleister's stoic façade, leaving the pale boy looking rattled; and even more so, when his phone began to buzz in his pocket.

"I, ahem..." Aleister coughed, digging his phone out as he tried to recompose himself. "I have to take this." He said at last, glancing at the screen briefly. "Excuse me." He said, slipping around Taylor and hurrying out a side door.

Taylor growled, scowling as he silently fumed to himself. Why even bother, he clearly doesn't care about Diego. None of them do! He thought viciously, startling himself with his own temper. He sighed and ran a shaky hand through his hair, blinking as he tried to push away the hot anger which seemed to bubble beneath his skin. Regardless... Diego would want me to help them, if they were the ones in danger. I owe it to all of them. All of this was my fault... But, I can't do this alone. If I can just make sure Diego is okay, then maybe I can figure out what to do from there by myself... He thought, drawing in a deep breath to steady himself, before hurrying after Aleister again. 

By the time he finally caught up to the pale boy, he was already in the middle of a phone call. "Yes, aunt Iris, I know the college prep is tonight; but we've talked about this." Aleister sighed wearily, pinching the bridge of his nose. Taylor took a step back, sensing the pale boys rapidly unravelling temper, and not wishing to be in the firing line. "Because," Aleister finally snapped, after listening for a long moment, his expression twisting with fury. "I have to meet with the homecoming and yearbook committee's after school, and I cannot be in three places at once!"

Taylor averted his eyes as Aleister sighed, gripping the strap of his bag, unable to fight off the curiosity as to what it might be like, to have family so invested in his life. But they'll never be interested, because they can't forgive me for-

"I know, aunt Iris, I know." Aleister said wearily, unknowingly drawing Taylor out of his dangerously intimate thoughts, much to Taylors relief and gratitude. "Yes, I... ahem, I love you too. Goodbye." Aleister said stiffly, ending the call with a deep sigh.

Taylor waited a moment, before slowly approaching the pale boy. "Damn," he said, clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth, as Aleister startled in surprise. "You really are busy, huh? You know, if you would just slow down for a second-"

"I am fairly confident the school would quite literally collapse upon itself." Aleister drawled, cutting Taylor off with an amused twitch of his lips. His phone buzzed again in his hand, and he looked down at the screen with another weary sigh. "Oh, just wonderful." He groaned, running a hand over his immaculate hair. "Now the school paper says they need an interview... Tomorrow?!" Aleister balked, staring at his phone in wide eyed disbelief, before his expression morphed into a furious scowl. "What the devil are those incompetent morons thinking? Leaving such a thing til the last minute!" 

Aleister's words began to flow faster and faster, growing louder as he paced back and forth in obvious agitation. "How on earth am I supposed to prepare for an interview by tomorrow?!" He demanded furiously, snarling whenever he rechecked the message on his phone to be certain he hadn't misread the text. "I cannot contend with such irresponsible negligence right now!"

"Whoa, Aleister! Calm down!" Taylor yelped, waving his arms as he stepped forward to force the pale boy to a stop. "Stop! Just, breathe for a second, dude..." He said, putting his hand on Aleister's shoulder tentatively and looking up to meet his eyes. 

"Taylor, you're touching me." Aleister muttered, purposely avoiding Taylors gaze as he continued to stress about the interview. "Why are you touching me? This is another of your 'human interaction' things isn't it?"  he muttered vaguely, as Taylor snorted in amusement.

"Look, dude. Just focus on me, okay?" He said, ignoring Aleister's muttered ramblings and gently taking hold of Aleister's other shoulder as well. "Deep breath in..." He said as he took a long, slow breath in demonstration, freeing both hands when Aleister rolled a withering glare his way and motioning for the pale boy to follow his lead. Finally Aleister sighed and turned his eyes to the sky, sensing it would be quicker for him to do as Taylor asked than to fight him. He drew in a sarcastically deep breath as Taylor had, and held it, pointedly raising a brow at Taylor for his next instruction, his lips twitching in amusement despite his sardonic expression.

"Good boy." Taylor smirked mockingly, laughing quietly when Aleister rolled his eyes at him. "Now back out, nice... and slow." He said, as Aleister finally exhaled heavily.

"Aaaaahhhh..." The pale boy sighed in exaggerated dramatics, shaking his head in rueful amusement as Taylor made him repeat the breathing exercise a few more times. Finally he flapped a hand at Taylor and straightened his flawless sweater.

"Better?" Taylor leered knowingly, grinning widely as Aleister scoffed and continued to check over his immaculate clothes, avoiding Taylors gaze.

"I admit I feel... A little more myself." He reluctantly confessed, clearing his throat as his cheeks stained pink with embarrassment for his emotional display, though Taylor tactfully said nothing about it.

"Good." He said, clearing his throat as he cocked his brow thoughtfully. "Now, about this interview... Maybe, it'd be less stressful, if I helped you prepare? We can grab a coffee down the street, and I can throw you some softball questions." He offered, as Aleister hummed, clearly considering the offer. "I've been meaning to catch up with you anyway... It's a perfect excuse for me to ask all kinds of nosy stuff." He said, shrugging as he avoided Aleister's piercing gaze.

"Hmm, and I'm sure you have no ulterior motives in helping me." The pale boy drawled knowingly, as Taylor winked and grinned guiltily. "Well, regardless... It would be a great help." Aleister said finally, raising a brow as he looked Taylor over curiously. "Are you sure you don't mind? If you need to head home, I can study later tonigh-"

"No." Taylor said, shaking his head as he looked at the floor to hide the shame in his eyes. "There's nobody home anyway, so... I've got nothing 'til six." He said, clearing his throat as he shrugged his bag higher on his shoulder and plastered a grin to his face. "C'mon, let's do it!" He said, as Aleister frowned at him with apparent concern. "But... you have to promise to hear me out for five minutes when we're done."

"Ah, the proverbial catch." Aleister huffed, folding his arms over his chest as he peered at Taylor intently for a long moment. "Very well." He said at last, gesturing for Taylor to lead the way.

Taylor winked and laughed when Aleister rolled his eyes at him, turning to lead the pale boy to the cosy coffee shop, only a five minute walk from Westchester High. He moved to the counter, whilst Aleister found them a table, ordering two coffees and quickly bringing them over to the pale boy with an assortment of additives. Taylor took a sip of the rich, dark liquid while Aleister added milk and a single sugar to his own. "I always had you down as a tea guy..." Taylor admitted abruptly, and Aleister snorted in amusement as he stirred his own drink to his satisfaction. After allowing a moment for them to each gather their thoughts, Taylor cleared his throat, putting on his best ace reporter voice, as he mimicked writing in a notebook.

"Are these dramatics really necessary?" Aleister sighed wearily, earning a scowl from Taylor as he finished setting himself up.

"I'm being authentic. Shut up." Taylor said, as Aleister sighed again but held his tongue. Taylor cleared his throat again, pasting a large smile on his face and looking up at Aleister like he was meeting him for the first time. "Hi, nice to meet you! I'm Taylor, with the Westchester Word. Thanks for sitting down with me." He said brightly, winking conspiratorially as Aleister rolled his eyes.

"I'm already regretting it." He said wearily, taking a delicate sip from his coffee as he smirked at Taylor. "I rarely suffer such elaborate foolishness."

"Ahem..." Taylor coughed loudly, scowling at Aleister for interrupting him, before returning to his reporter persona. "And can I just say, sir, what an honour it is to interview the Class President Rourke?"

"Of course you may," Aleister drawled, his lips quirking at Taylors obvious growing frustration. "It will certainly be a boost to your career in journalism, if nothing else."

Taylor simmered in his chair, scowling at the pale boys smug expression. "Thanks." He bit out, before quickly shaking away his frustration and returning to his professional reporter persona. "Let's start with an easy question, to help our readers get to know you better. How about you tell me... A secret, you've never told anyone." He said, smirking as Aleister blinked in surprise.

"That's awfully personal, for some back to school interview, don't you think?" The pale boy drawled, resting his chin on his hand as he gazed at Taylor with a curious frown, a flash of darkness passing within his eyes.

"The Westchester Word asks only the real, hard hitting questions our seventeen readers demand." Taylor said, winking coyly before waggling his brows over the table suggestively.

"Apparently." Aleister huffed, shaking his head as he looked at the table and considered for a long moment."Very well." He said suddenly, looking up at Taylor with a small twitch of his lips. "Here is a very little known fact about myself, which I've never told anyone... I actually detest speeches. I loathe giving them, and find them to be a total waste of my breath."

"What? Aleister come on, that's a boring secret." Taylor sighed, dropping his imaginary pen in feigned outrage. "Everyone already knows you're a great public speaker, and you give speeches all the time. Think of another one."

"Of course I'm an excellent public speaker, I am not an imbecile. I do what I must, whether I enjoy it or not is of no consequence." Aleister sneered, drinking more of his coffee. "Besides, you did not specify what sort of secret I should share."

"Aleister!" Taylor whined petulantly, barely fighting off the urge to stamp his feet as he scowled over at the smirking boy opposite him. "Urgh, you're no fun whatsoever." He groused, pouting down at his coffee before reluctantly glancing up at Aleister. "Well, you sure had me fooled anyway, I always thought you loved hearing yourself talk."

"That is..." Aleister choked, a surprised laugh escaping him and cheering Taylor significantly. "Peculiarly comforting to hear... But keep an eye next time I must give one of those despicable pep rally's. My hands are constantly tapping, I've tried everything but, I can't seem to stop it."

"Hmm... Is that a consolation offer of an extra tidbit of a secret?" Taylor chuckled, as Aleister merely waved his brows in reply briefly. Taylor grinned and shook his head, biting his sore lip before sitting straight and clearing his throat, picking up his imaginary pen again. "Moving right along... Let's talk about the school year ahead." He said, pretending to read through some notes briefly, before looking up at Aleister in careful consideration. "What are you looking forward to the most?"

"Hmm, a much more appropriate question." Aleister said approvingly, taking a moment to consider his answer. "I would say that, this year what I am most looking forward to is homecoming."

"Really?" Taylor balked, his professional façade dropping again in his surprise. "That's surprising." He said, blinking as Aleister chuckled and shrugged a shoulder in an oddly elegant manner which made Taylor feel strangely jealous of the other boys natural grace.

"I suppose it was a misleading answer on my part." Aleister said lightly, raising his coffee cup for another sip. "What I mean to say, is that; the sooner homecoming is over, the sooner I can stop having migraines about it."

"Pfft, that sounds more like you." Taylor snorted, grinning goofily as Aleister rolled his eyes at him. "Though, I probably wouldn't say that to the actual paper if the question does come up." He added, cocking his head as he looked at his friend thoughtfully. "Why's it giving you migraines."

Aleister grimaced, lowering his coffee as he sighed wearily. "This is the first year the student council has an actual budget, so; they've decided we can afford a DJ." He sneered, showing his distaste for the idea. "A grotesque waste, if you ask me, but I am merely a pawn in this area, I'm afraid."

"Wow. So, a school dance might actually be cool for once?" Taylor asked, humming thoughtfully to himself.

"If you can call such moronic body grinding cool then certainly, that is the hope." Aleister replied snidely, shaking his head dispassionately.

"Hmm..." Taylor hummed, wondering if it might be worth forgoing his plans to skip attending the homecoming after all. All depends on if I can find Diego... I'm not going anywhere near that stupid dance without my best friend embarrassing himself alongside me. He thought, sobering himself somewhat as he caught sight of the clock, the time to his meeting with the others slowly ticking by. "Well," he said, clearing his throat as he distracted himself from the rising nervousness in his gut. "Since we're on the subject... Let's talk about the event on everyone's mind; this years homecoming. Who are you going with..?" Taylor asked, propping his elbows on the table and resting his chin in his hands, as he leaned closer to Aleister conspiratorially.

"Ahem, I do believe that is none of you're business." Aleister said roughly, his cheeks staining with a faint tinge of colour as he pointedly averted his gaze briefly, before frowning over at Taylor. "Is that even something people worry about this early?" He asked, as Taylors eyes drifted over the lake boys shoulder, spotting a familiar face at the counter.

"Hmm..." He hummed again, chewing his lip distractedly as he watched the man pay for his coffee and what looked like a small banana bread loaf, before he began to move towards the exit. Taylor felt his cheeks flush with warmth, but it was the sharp sting in his lip which finally had him yelping and looking away from the man. "Ahem, sorry... what? I uh-"

"I suppose that answers that question." Aleister chuckled, eyeing Taylor knowingly as he flushed even deeper in his embarrassment. "Seen something we like, have we, Taylor?" 

Taylor cleared his throat, glancing towards the exit in the hopes of seeing the man again, but to no avail, as he'd already disappeared. "I uh, I guess you could say that I've got my eye on someone..."

"You don't say." Aleister huffed dryly, his lips quirking fondly as he toyed with his empty cup with his long fingers.

"Yeah..." Taylor hummed in distant agreement, thinking back to his last interaction with the man. "Though," he said, his brows raising as he stared vacantly at his coffee cup. "I'm not sure if he'd be interested..."

"Well, why don't you stop being such a dramatically pining fool, and go ask him?" Aleister asked with a derisive sniff, his piercing gaze lit with amusement as Taylor scowled and raised his dark blue eyes to meet Aleister's gaze. 

"Maybe I will." He sneered, thrusting out his chin defiantly, as Aleister snorted and shook his head. Taylor huffed, looking away as he clicked the top of his imaginary pen, and closed his imaginary notebook. "Ahem, well... Anyway." He said awkwardly, ignoring the heat in his cheeks beneath Aleister's smug expression. "I think that's just about everything I need for the interview. Look for it in the stands tomorrow." He said, finally relaxing with a laugh as Aleister rolled his eyes and sighed at his continued theatrics.

They say in comfortable silence for a moment, before Aleister cleared his throat and looked anywhere but across the table. "Thank you, Taylor." He said stiffly, picking at some imaginary lint on his sweater. "You did not have to help me, but that was... not an entire waste of my time."

"I feel like I just got the most backhanded of backhanded compliments, ever known to man..." Taylor huffed, amused by Aleister's reluctant gratitude. "But seriously, Aleister; anytime, okay? I'm really glad I was able to help..."

"Helping, might be a slight overextension of whatever you were doing..." Aleister scoffed, though his piercing eyes held laughter in them. "But none the less, I feel more prepared for tomorrow." He said, allowing another silence to settle over them, the ticking of the clock reminding Taylor again of the urgent meeting he'd called.

"Er... not to, spoil the mood but," Taylor paused, drawing in a deep breath to steady himself. "There was... something else, I needed to talk to you about." He hedged awkwardly, as the laughter faded from Aleister's gaze and he looked down at the table.

"Ah." He said, heaving a deep sigh before returning his reluctant gaze to Taylors. "You mean, what happened at the pep rally this morning."

"Yeah..." Taylor said slowly, narrowing his eyes at Aleister's sudden guilty expression. "So you did hear them, then? The whispers..?" He said, frowning as Aleister stubbornly held his tongue. "The voice?" He demanded, finally drawing a reaction from the pale boy.

"I am neither an imbecile, nor deaf." Aleister sneered, glancing around as he scratched his arm uncomfortably. "But, I do not need it broadcast around the school that the Class President hears voices." He whispered viciously, scowling at a nearby group of girls. "However," he amended, his fierce expression fading as the girls hurried away and he returned his gaze to Taylor. "Supposing I did, hypothetically... What then?"

"Well, hypothetically," Taylor snarked with a sarcastic grimace, frowning down at his phone. "A bunch of us are meeting by the fountain to talk about it. Six pm." He said slowly, watching as Aleister absorbed the information with only a minimal show of surprise. "So... you in? Or, are you too busy?" Taylor asked, sucking his injured lip between his teeth and swiping his tongue over the wound, as he waited for Aleister to reply.

Finally the pale boy sighed, looking over at him in resignation. "I'm in." He said firmly, nodding his head sharply. "It's probably the least I can do, considering the help you've given me in helping prepare for that ghastly interview."

Taylors shoulders slumped, a tension he hadn't even realised he'd been carrying, falling away as relief pulsed through him. "Thankyou. I'll see you then..?"

"Indeed..." Aleister said, pushing to his feet. "You shall. For now though, I must return to the school and attend to several Class President matters."

"Okay," Taylor said, quickly standing and gathering his things together, chuckling at Aleister's surprised expression. "I might as well get my homework done while I wait, and the best place to do it is the school library anyway." He explained, gesturing for Aleister to lead the way back to the school, and after glancing around quickly, following close behind him.

It seemed to take no time at all to return to the school premises, and once Taylor had parted ways from Aleister, it seemed like only the blink of an eye; before the sun was sinking behind the trees and he walked back out of the school building, despite a few hours having passed. He was surprised to find Raj, Quinn and Aleister already waiting in tense silence, and he hurried over to Quinn worriedly. "Are you okay? I never even thought, but are you sure you're up for this..?" He asked quickly, as Quinn blinked at him blankly.

"I..." She stammered, before dissolving into giggles. "Oh, Taylor... I'm fine." She said, stifling further laughter by biting her lip. "Thankyou for asking, but... I want to be here." She said, taking his hand and squeezing it tightly, just as Sean jogged around the building, with Rebecca trailing behind him, texting busily.

"Hey, guys! One sec..." She said, smiling around them all briefly before returning her gaze to her phone. She wandered over, finishing up her messages as she came to stand beside Taylor. Without even pausing or taking her eyes from her screen, she quickly jabbed a fist into his arm, raising a brow when he yelped in surprise. "Tell me you weren't expecting that, after your stunt earlier." She snorted, smirking at his pouting expression.

"Expecting, sure. Was hoping you wouldn't know that though..." He muttered, rubbing the offended spot on his arm as Rebecca rolled her eyes and returned to her texting, missing the amused grin which lit Taylors face. "So, you never realised we don't even have a third floor, I take it..?" He asked, dodging another sudden jab towards his arm with a laugh, as the fiery redhead smiled grudgingly.

"It was a mean prank, 'kay?" She sniffed, feigning a scowl despite her grin. "You just wait til I set my brother on ya, he'll kick your ass so hard, ya won't sit right for a week."

"I imagine Taylor would rather enjoy that." Aleister drawled, as Taylors jaw dropped in outrage, while Quinn giggled at their teasing.

"Hey, when did this turn into 'pick on Taylor' night?" He demanded hotly, scowling between the pair as they exchanged a conspiratorial glance. "It is so not fair to play two against one, by the way. I'll have you know-"

"Man, how is it this dark already?" Sean asked loudly, distracting the group from their bickering, as Raj stood up from his seat on the fountain.

"Who we missing, doodlejumps?" He asked, frowning as he counted heads and came up one short.

"Um..." Quinn murmured, glancing around the area quickly herself. "I don't see Zahra..." She said, looking over at Rebecca uncertainly, as she shook her head to show she didn't see her either.

"You guys look like the cover of some lame ass, Christian rock album." Zahra spoke suddenly from behind them, making both Taylor and Quinn jump in surprise.

"Damn," Sean said, quickly recovering from his own surprise, though his eyes remained wide as he ran a hand over his short hair. "What are you, a ninja?"

"Vampire." Zahra quipped effortlessly, raising a brow as Quinn frowned over at her.

"But, I've seen you out in the sun..." She said, staring at Zahra in awe, while Taylor rolled his eyes and reminded himself to explain Zahra's sense of humour to the redhead later.

"I am the daywalker." Zahra said blandly, though her lips twitched with amusement. "Fear me." She demanded, as Taylor pointedly cleared his throat.

"Okay..." He said loudly, looking around the group of former friends slowly, as he drew their attention back towards the purpose of their meeting. Diego needs us... He thought, swallowing thickly and licking his lips before forcing himself to continue. "Look; we all know why we're here... The blackout at the pep rally. The wind. The voice." He said meaningfully, looking around the suddenly averted faces around him.

"I..." Rebecca coughed, tossing her hair over her shoulder nervously. "I don't know what ya talkin' about." She sniffed haughtily, meeting Taylors eyes with a determined gaze.

"Becca, you came here for a reason..." He said gently, feeling a distinct jab of guilt when the redhead flinched and turned her gaze away. Taylor looked around the group again, his eyes silently pleading as everyone met his gaze briefly, before looking away again. "We've barely spoken in years..." He said imploringly, a rush of gratitude flooding through him when Quinn's small hand squeezed his own supportively. "None of you would be here, unless you were just as freaked out as I was. Unless you heard the same thing I did."

"Everyone plays together." Raj finally muttered, as a heavy silence filled the air, the group all refusing to look at each other.

"There's..." Quinn began hesitantly, biting her lip before looking up at Taylor uncertainly. "There's something else..." She said, lowering her eyes as she dug out her phone and held it out to Taylor with a shaking hand.

"Quinn..!" He gasped, snatching the phone and scrolling through the messages on the screen, before looking at her frantically. "Are these all from Diego?"

"Wait, you received those as well?" Aleister asked, stepping forward to look at the messages, as Taylor began to hyperventilate, distressed to think he wasn't the only one his best friend had reached out to; only for none of them to have come to his aid.

"Back the fuck up..." Zahra demanded, holding out the palm of her hand as if warding off evil spirits. "Did we all get weird ass texts from Diego last night?" She asked, frowning as Taylors fingers inched towards the bruises on his neck, which began to ache at the gentle touch.

"I..." He choked, his grief thick in his throat. He swallowed heavily, forcing back his clamouring emotions and sucking in a deep, stabilising breath. "I have to tell you something." He forced himself to say, summoning his every ounce of courage; and launching into an explanation of everything which had happened to him the previous night. He began with the texts, before moving to the blackout, and finally, described in as much detail as he could; the creature which wore Diego's face, before finally rolling down the neck of his vest so they could see the proof of his story. "I know it sounds crazy, but... I think it was him. I think... Mr. Red is back."

"We have to call the cops." Sean growled after a heavy pause, scowling as he eyed the bruises around Taylors neck. "Right now. They'll find that creep who attacked you and-"

"Dude, there's no point." Taylor said, shaking his head as he rolled his vest neck back over his bruises, squeezing Quinn's hand when he noticed her still staring at the now covered marks, tears glistening in her eyes. "There's no way in hell the police would believe us."

"You don't know that." Sean insisted, glaring at him in frustration, as Taylors own temper began to rise.

"Oh what, like they believed us the last time we told them the truth, you mean?" He spat venomously, the guilt he felt at Raj's flinch smothered beneath his fury at Sean's stubbornness. "Hey Zahra, think your dad will believe you, if you told him a nightmare monster was coming to kill us all?" He said scathingly, his eyes still locked onto Sean.

"Pfft, hell no." Zahra scoffed, as Sean clenched his hands into fists, but refused to lower his gaze from Taylors. "He'd make me pee in a cup, then search my room for drugs. Like that's where I'd be stupid enough to keep them." She snorted, as the group fell into awkward silence once more.

"Well... Anyway, what are cops gonna do against Redfield, dudes?" Raj asked, looking around them all as he tugged his beanie hat lower over his tied up hair. "Arrest him?"

Sean finally sighed, his hands reluctantly un-balling themselves, as he glanced at Taylor apologetically. "Yeah, alright man... I get it."

"Maybe we could get the dirt monster to testify?" Raj teased, snickering at his own joke.

"I said, I get it." Sean said, scowling over at Raj as the larger boy seemed to gain confidence, clearly preparing some further taunt.

"Oh, for pity's sake Raj, leave the quarterback alone." Aleister sighed, scowling between the pair, as Sean's furious gaze turned towards the pale Class President.

"I'm not the quarterback." Sean growled, as Taylor sighed and ran a hand through his hair, feeling like a fool for having not expected the group to be so tense and argumentative after growing so distant with each other.

"Of course, my apologies." Aleister drawled, rolling his eyes at Sean's display as he folded his arms over his chest. "Because your weak attempts to deny you were ever a football star, will make it so." He snorted, as Sean took a menacing step closer.

"Hey, you wanna mind your own damn business, man. You got no right commenting on my life choices..." Sean warned, as Aleister huffed and gazed back at him apathetically.

"If you weren't such a colossal fool, perhaps I wouldn't feel the need to comment." Aleister sneered, running his eyes over Sean dismissively. "As it is you gave up a game you love, lost your best friend and all for nothing. The game does not make the man."

Sean made to step closer to Aleister again, only for Taylor to quickly intercept him and raising his hands in placation, sending a frustrated glare towards Aleister, who shrugged unaffectedly. Sean looked down at Taylor, before finally sighing heavily, running a hand over his short hair as he turned and aimed a sharp kick at a pebble, sending it flying across the street.

"Oh, yeah. Speaking of cop stuff," Zahra said suddenly, clearing her throat as the testosterone cleared from the air around them. "Diego's parents reported him missing this morning."

"They what?!" Taylor choked, spinning around to stare at Zahra in disbelief, panic surging in his heart like a suddenly raging fire.

"Diego's missing?" Raj cried, scowling over at Zahra furiously. "And you're only telling us this now?"

"I thought you would have heard!" Zahra replied defensively, glaring back at the large boy and flipping him the bird for good measure.

"Not everyone's dad is the sheriff." Rebecca said hotly, glaring over at Zahra and receiving a middle finger gesture of her own for her comment.

Taylor missed their accusations, guilt and fear colliding in his heart as he tried to make himself breathe normally. He's missing, he's really missing... Damn, I should have trusted my gut feeling and just cut school to go find him. He thought, swallowing thickly as he tried to reign in his emotions. "Hey!" He yelled over his bickering friends, forcing them to quiet as he slowly raised his head to look around them all. "Diego could be... is probably, in trouble. I'm going to find him." He said firmly.

"Taylor, come on!" Rebecca protested, her eyes wide as she placed a hand on his arm, only for Taylor to shrug it off. "Diego needs actual help. From adults. And professionals." She said, shaking her head when he turned to look at her with a confused frown. "Professional adults." She repeated, as Taylor began to shake his head.

"No. I have to find him." He said, his hands trembling as the thought of losing his best friend shot through his mind. "It has to be me."

"And why, pray tell, is that?" Aleister demanded, raising a brow at Taylors stubborn insistence.

"Because he's my best friend!" Taylor cried, turning away from the group in frustration, as his heart clenched with guilt, grief and fear. "Because all of this is my fault! Because... Because I can't lose him too. I can't lose any of you."

"Taylor, if ya really his friend, you'll let the professionals find him and help him..." Rebecca insisted, and Taylor felt his thin patience snap.

"How many of you have even spoken to Diego, in the past ten years?" He demanded, whirling around to face them, his hot and guilty tears stinging in his eyes as everyone pointedly averted their own. "Diego and I stuck together. He's like my brother... I can't just leave him out there if Mr. Red has him. I owe it to him, to do something. To save him, like I couldn't-" he choked, panting for breath as he wrestled back his panic and fury.

"I know, nobody wants to dredge this stuff back up." Taylor said slowly, still fighting with his temper as he gazed around the group imploringly. "We've all told ourselves over the years that it never happened. That we were kids, and we just made it all up. It's how we coped." He said knowingly, as everyone shifted their weight guiltily. "But Diego couldn't, guys. He kept it all... And he was right. It happened. We all remember Mr. Red, and we all saw what he did to-"

"We can't let him do the same to Diego." Raj said, nodding his head as he visibly pushed aside his own guilt and grief.

"No one did anythin' to 'em, Taylor." Rebecca insisted, almost pleaded in her desperation to avoid the truth of their past. "It was just, a freak accide-"

"That's bull, and you know it." Raj said adamantly, scowling at the redhead in genuine irritation.

"All I know is that we were a buncha dumb kids, who should've never been playin' in the woods by ourselves!" Rebecca cried, glaring back at Raj as she swept angry tears from her cheeks. "What I know is that we never would've been, if Taylor and-"

"Perhaps, if we could calm the hysterics for a moment," Aleister said loudly, glancing at Taylor as his expression crumpled with guilt. "We might be able to consider the facts." Taylor shook his head slowly, as Aleister paused to gather his thoughts. "Everything which occurred during the rally, could easily be explained by some faulty wiring." The pale boy finally declared, before turning to Taylor with a raised brow. "As for Diego... What exactly, are you proposing we do?"

"I'd have thought that was obvious, to someone so smart as you." Taylor said tiredly, glancing around the group. "I have to stop this. I have to find Diego, figure out what the hell that idiot did; kick his ass for it, and then undo it! I'd hoped for your help... But with or without you, I have to go-"

"... into the woods..." Quinn gasped, shaking her head in disbelief as she suddenly realised just what Taylors plan was. The wind picked up at Quinn's words, leaves fleeing across the asphalt as stunned silence fell over the group. "No, Taylor; you can't go back there! Please!"

Raj walked towards Quinn, holding up his hands in a calming gesture, as Taylor lowered his gaze and slipped away from her side. "Easy little dudette, I know you're scared..." He said, glancing over at Taylor with a small nod. "But if we want this to stop, we have to-"

Sean blocked Raj's path, placing a gentle but firm hand on his chest. "Back off, man." He said firmly, his brow furrowing as he glared at Raj. "Quinn doesn't have to do anything she doesn't want, and none of us have to let Taylor be an idiot."

"Are you for real right now, dude?" Raj demanded hotly, scowling at Sean in disbelief. "I thought you were the big brave man, singlehandedly tossing out his worthless-"

A heavy door slammed open suddenly, the loud bang echoing as the group simultaneously tensed, like animals caught in a predators stare. Taylor quickly moved to the back of the group, giving himself enough space for a head start should they try to stop him again. The group watched silently, as there cheerleaders rounded the corner of the gym, chatting happily as they passed the awkward group obliviously. As they vanished into the school, Taylor and the rest of the group finally began to breath again.

"Raj, maybe you have time to go running around in the woods chasing boogiemen," Rebecca snapped in a harsh whisper, her face falling as she looked down at the floor. "But some of us have real problems."

"Getting kidnapped by some shadow monster nightmare dude, who can apparently strangle us in our sleep, seems like a pretty real freaking problem!" Raj cried, his eyes wide as he waved his arms emphatically.

"Guys, calm down!" Taylor yelled, scowling as the group jumped and turned towards him guiltily. 

"Don't tell me to be calm, Taylor..." Raj muttered, glaring around the rest of the group in barely disguised disgust. "Diego is missing. And none of these guys give a damn..."

"That's hardly fair." Aleister sneered, frowning at Raj in consternation. "We are all concerned for Diego, but we are also attempting to impress upon Taylor, the idiocy of charging off into the woods without a plan of action!" He explained hotly, clearing his throat as he regained his composure. "If the police have been called already, we should stay out of their way and allow them to handle it."

"Like they handled it ten years ago?" Raj demanded lowly, as the group flinched guiltily.

"Raj-" Rebecca began, only for the large boy to shake his head and back away from them all quickly. 

"No. I've had it with this." He said, firmly placing himself between taylor and the rest of the group. "Redfield killed my little cousin, right in front of us! And you all shrugged it off like nothing happened!" He cried, his voice breaking as his heartache broke through his anger. "If Taylors willing to go after Diego, then I'm gonna help him anyway I can. Even if its just by holding you guys back..."

"Man, nobody 'shrugged off' anything!" Sean said, as Taylor began to back away from the group, sucking his injured lip between his teeth.

"The hell you didn't!" Raj yelled, his face falling as he looked around and gestured at various members of their group. "Class President, cheerleader, star quarterback; oh, whoops. Basketball jock." Raj sneered sarcastically. "You all seem to be doing just fine..." He muttered, shaking his head as he looked around everyone. "The second my little cuz was in the ground, you were all happy to move on with your lives. And you're pulling the same shit now with Diego... Just so long as it doesn't affect your perfect life."

"Oh what, because we didn't all become loser potheads like you, we're unfeeling monsters?" Rebecca demanded hotly, her eyes flashing with fury. "It ever occur to you this was just our way of coping?! They were our friend too!"

"You all keep talking about Diego like you even know him anymore..." Taylor said quietly, several large paces away from them all as he looked back at them reproachfully. "Like you care about him now. Where the hell were you for the past year?" He asked, his deep blue eyes hardening as they gazed  back ay him in surprise. "Where were you, when he got totally annihilated at winter formal? Or the spring bonanza? Or summer regalia?" He demanded, brushing his eyes roughly with the back of his hand. "Cuz I sure as hell don't remember you guys helping me clean him up after..."

Taylor swallowed heavily, his eyes falling onto Quinn's tearful face. "I don't blame you. I get that people cope differently... But don't try and stand there, telling me you know a damn thing about Diego. None of you were there then... And, I shouldn't have expected you to be now." He said, swallowing thickly as he turned away.

"I didn't know Diego was having that much trouble..." Sean said quietly, as Taylor tried to drag in several deep breaths to calm his racing pulse. "Man, why didn't he say anything?"

"You were having trouble enough, throwing your dad out and cutting football for basketball..." Taylor muttered, raising his eyes to the stars as he shook his head and sighed. "Rebecca's mom was up for election, and she was swamped with the paperwork to help her out. He refused to offload his problems onto Quinn due to her fluctuating health problems, and Aleister was always just too scary for him to approach..." He huffed, a rueful grin quirking his lips briefly, before quickly dying again.

"I feel like I should take umbridge at that, but..." Aleister said hesitantly, clearing his throat awkwardly. "I admit I may come off as rather, intimidating... when I'm vexed."

"You're always vexed." Taylor snorted, turning and glancing over at Zahra and Raj, as they frowned and clearly wondered why they hadn't been approached. "He wasn't about to complain to you Raj, when you lost the most back then... And Zahra-"

"Lemme guess, he was scared of me." She intoned dryly, as Taylor shrugged in noncommittal agreement. "I might not like people but... I never wanted him to feel that way." She hedged gruffly, her cheeks colouring in embarrassment as she looked away.

"But... even so, we could have helped!" Sean insisted, his face falling in guilt. "I, could have helped."

"Well, now it's too late." Taylor sighed, running a hand through his hair distractedly. "I tried, guys... I tried to help him. But, in the end all I did was make things worse. So I'm gonna go find him, whether you help or not."

"You're an idiot, Taylor!" Rebecca said hotly, scowling as she turned and stomped away without a backward glance.

Quinn bit her lip, looking down at the ground as she held her artbook in a shaking, white knuckled grip. "Taylor... I want to help, but-"

"You can't. I know." Taylor said, shaking his head as she slowly approached and leaned her head to his chest. He wrapped his arms around her, and pressed his cheek to the top of her head. "You're the bravest of all of us, you know?" He whispered, as Quinn sniffed and shook her head.

"That was always you." She mumbled, drawing back to wipe at her eyes, before looking up at him worriedly. "Be careful?"

"Of course." He said, as she stood on her tiptoes and pressed a quick kiss to his cheek. "Urgh, girl slobber." He grimaced, rubbing at his cheek and laughing quietly when she slapped his arm gently. He watched as she backed away, before turning to hurry back into the school and call one of her parents to collect her.

"I guess you're gonna bail too, President Snow?" Raj said, turning towards Aleister with an accusatory frown.

"Even if I did believe all this childish prattle, which I am neither confirming nor denying," Aleister sneered, drawing himself up to his full impressive height. "I simply have no time at this point." He said, following after Quinn, though he paused and half turned back to Taylor. "Do try not to perish?" He asked, as Taylor chuckled and mockingly saluted the pale boy.

"Fine! Just... bury your heads in the sand!" Raj fumed, finally losing his minimal grasp on his temper. "This isn't just gonna stop though, you know!"

"Raj, man... Leave them alone." Taylor said quietly, shaking his head as he sighed heavily. "If I hadn't seen that thing last night, hell... if I didn't have this," he said, gesturing to his bruised throat. "I would probably still be in denial too." He said, turning to Zahra to find the girl was picking her nails in boredom. "So, how 'bout it, Ghostie Girl?"

"Call me that again, and you'll be dealing with those eyeballs I mentioned." Zahra said blankly, startling a laugh out of Taylor. "But a creepy, deep woods ghost hunt is emphatically my brand, loser. I'm in." She said, bumping her fist to Taylors with a wink.

"Me too." Sean said firmly, seemingly still absorbing the information Taylor had dumped upon them all. "I dunno about all this ghost stuff... But Diego's a good guy, and he needs us."

"So, when are we going?" Zahra asked, examining her nails before dropping them to her side. "Friday?"

"What? No!" Raj cried, his eyes wide as he stared at Zahra's blank expression in disbelief. "We have to go tonight!"

"Urgh, I can't." Zahra sighed, rolling her eyes in frustration. "My dads made this dumb but strict rule about school night curfew... And wow does that sound lame out loud." She complained, scowling and kicking at the ground.

"Yeah, I can't go tonight either." Sean admitted regretfully, as Taylor shook his head. "The team needs me here early tomorrow for training."

"Pfft, sure they do." Zahra scoffed, glancing sideways at Sean. "How will team dudebro know they're having fun, without some minorities to exclude?"

Sean stiffened, his hands clenching as he turned, ready to snao at Zahra; before he wilted suddenly. "I mean, you're not wrong..." He grumbled, scratching the back of his neck awkwardly. "But I have to keep showing up, right? They can't ignore me forever."

"I admire your optimism." Zahra snorted, shaking her head at him. "It's dumb, but I admire it."

"So that's it?" Taylor asked quietly, looking between the pair sadly. "After all your..." He paused, biting back words he knew he would regret voicing later. "You're both sure you can't come?"

Zahra and Sean exchanged a doubtful glance, the pair seeming to have a silent debate as Taylor gazed between them longingly. "Zahra, what if you told your dad you were studying at my house?" Taylor offered suddenly, startling the duo from their shared glance.

"Huh, that might actually do it..." Zahra admitted, cocking her head thoughtfully. "He's always liked you, for some reason... Plus he'll be thrilled to hear I'm making 'normal' friends." She added dismissively, before frowning suddenly. "Won't your parents mind?"

"No." Taylor said, offering no further explanation. He figured she would find out about his severely lacking familial life soon enough, anyway.

"Rad." She replied, bump in her fist to hisnagain with a devious grin, clearly pleased to have found a loophole in her fathers rulebook.

Taylor turned to Sean, their eyes meeting in a tense moment of silence. "Sean... I know basketball is important to you. I know why. But, this could be life and death. You're the strongest person here... And, I'd feel a whole lot better, with you looking out for us."

Sean snorted, rolling his eyes and sighing in exasperation. "Well, when you put it that way... I can't exactly say no to you. Alright, man. I'm in."

"Raj?" Taylor asked, turning to look at the large boy surprised to find him grinning widely.

"Yeah dudes, I'm way in." He said, high fiving everyone eagerly. Taylor drew in a deep breath, looking around the four of them and taking strength from their decision to stick together.

"Alright then. I gotta grab my things outta the library quickly, so you guys go ahead." He said, jerking his thumb over his shoulder towards the road to town. "We'll meet up in front of the hardware store. That'll give you a chance to call your dad too, Zahra." He added, as Zahra shrugged noncommittally.

"Alright doodlejump, then what?" Raj asked, frowning as Taylor began to move toward the school.

"Then..." Taylor said firmly, glancing back with a grimly determined expression. "Then we go save Diego."

Chapter Text

4.

Sticks And Stones.

Taylor quickly made his way through the abandoned halls of Westchester High, returning to the library to gather his things. He thought back to the tense meeting with his old friend group, still reeling from the surprise of having convinced some of them to come with him in his search for his missing best friend, Diego Soto.

He was just trotting back towards his locker, when he came across Michelle, Craig, Estela and Rebecca; surrounding a cornered Quinn. "Aw hell..." He sighed, running a hand through his short spikes as he eyed the group in rising irritation. "Like tonight wasn't already bad enough."

"Seriously, this whole stalker thing is getting old." Michelle said scathingly, as Taylor curled his hand into a fist.

"That's not what I'm-" Quinn defended hotly, glaring at the blonde tearfully, as she clutched her artbook protectively to her chest.

"C'mon, Meech." Craig leered, sniggering behind his hand. "I think her little love note was kinda sweet!" He taunted, holding up a piece of notebook paper, his mocking voice echoing down the hall as he read it aloud. "I don't understand what I did to make you hate me, or why you became so cold to the world. Where's the kind, sweet girl who braided my hair for the middle school dance?" He sneered, as Quinn lowered her eyes and scowled at the floor, her knuckles turning white as she gripped her artbook tightly.

"You and the dying girl were friends?" Estela asked blankly, eyeing Michelle in vague curiosity, as Quinn visibly flinched from her callous words.

"You're a cold hearted bitch, Estela... But that was low, even for you." Rebecca growled, scowling hotly at the girl with the scarred eye. She glared at Craig and Michelle, drawing the blonde from a faintly dazed stare. "Real mature, guys."

Michelle snatched the note from Craig suddenly, rearing it in the process, her face contorting and reddening in fury as she rounded on Quinn. "Guess you didn't get the message this morning sweetheart, so let me.spell it out for you." The blonde leered, tossing her hair over her shoulder in irritation. "That little crush of yours was flattering at first, but now? It's honestly kinda pathetic, and it's really starting to get on my nerves..."

"I..." Quinn mumbled, biting her lip as her hands trembled, holding her artbook closer to her chest as her face crumpled with remorse. "I just wanted to talk to you again, befor-"

"Michelle, lets just go." Rebecca urged, her eyes sad as she beheld Quinn's misery. "C'mon, look. Ya made your point already. I'm sure she-"

"I'm not done talking." Michelle fumed, glaring at Rebecca so vehemently that the fiery redhead flinched and lowered her gaze. Satisfied that she wouldn't be interrupted again, Michelle turned back to Quinn, pausing when she found the other girl glaring back at her tearfully. The blonde swallowed, before shaking her hair briefly. "Look, whatever creepy daydreams you have about me... you're gonna throw them out the window. Because to me, you're never gonna be anything, other than some loser girl, who's only future plans involve dyi-" 

Taylor raced down the hall, slamming his shoulder into Craig's huge body and knocking him into Michelle, the pair of them stumbling as Estela merely stepped out of their way. "Impressive." She murmured, watching Craig and Michelle right themselves with furious expressions, as they turns towards Taylor.

"Leave her alone." He said firmly, pretending his stomach wasn't tying itself in knots as he faced down the angry pair. "She's worth a thousand times more than either one of you, will ever be." He sneered, standing between Quinn and her tormentors. His eyes darted to Rebecca, his silent accusation clear to read in his hard gaze. Some friend you are. He thought, as she averted her gaze guiltily, while Taylor turned his own attention back to Michelle.

"Taylor-!" Quinn gasped, her small hand touching his shoulder from behind lightly, only for him to quickly shrug it off.

"You know, high school is hard enough without you and your pet vultures preying on everyone." He snarled, as Michelle blinked in surprise at his ferocity. "You're currently picking on the one person here, who might actually think you're a decent human being... somewhere in there." He muttered, gesturing vaguely towards her chest. "Maybe if you two could stop being so butt hurt about Sean needing to change things up, after all the shit that went down in his life, you could actually figure out the damage you're doing to your own!"

Michelle's expression slowly darkened, her snarl turning into a sneer. "Oh look, it's Taylor the White Knight, come to save poor little Quinn from the big bad world." She said, shaking her head as if something tragic were occurring.

"Well, if I'm the white knight..." Taylor replied, scowling at the blonde as she taunted him. "I guess that makes you the evil witch."

"Taylor, stop..." Quinn said quietly, trying again to tug at his shoulder. "You don't have to do this. Just go, Taylor-"

"No." He insisted, glancing back at her briefly and flashing her a sad smile. "I left you alone for too long. I'm not gonna let this prima-donna wannabe make out like you're worth less than her. At least you still see the beauty in people, she only sees how to break them."

"If I didn't know you batted for the wrong team, I'd say you were in love with her." Michelle scoffed derisively, folding her arms over her chest as her cheeks flushed with embarrassment at his spiteful slur. "I'd love to know how you plan to save her from her Rotterdam's, Taylor."

"I'm working on it." Taylor said in a fierce growl, as Rebecca raised her head with a shocked gasp. He ignored her, scowling at Michelle as the blonde seemed to absorb the information.

"Taylor... You-" Quinn choked, sniffling behind him as she shoved at his shoulder more insistently, her movements growing more and more urgent. "Just go, Taylor... You have to-"

"For once, we agree in something." Michelle said brightly, clicking her fingers as she winked at Quinn. "I think I've had enough of Taylors sass, for one day." She said thoughtfully, turning expectantly to the jock by her side. "Craig?"

For the first time however, Craig paused before following the blondes command, frowning at Taylor in wary confusion. "Yo, what'd you mean about Sean, bro?"

"You're a big boy, Craig." Taylor snarked scathingly, flashing the jock a frustrated glare. "Why don't you suck up your damn self obsessed attitude and ask him?"

"Craig!" Michelle said sharply, elbowing the jock in the side roughly to regain his attention. "Don't let this guy make fun of you. Everyone knows you were Sean's best friend, if something so big had happened in his life he would've told us."

"Oh, of course! I almost forgot, you were a half decent human being, back before the shit hit the fan and Sean told you he needed some space for awhile." Taylor sneered, turning back to Michelle with a scowl. "Because you've never had something you just needed to work through for yourself like that..." He scoffed.

Michelle flushed, her cheeks turning red as she eyed Taylor in open disbelief. "And why exactly would he turn to you?" She demanded, snorting derisively as she shook her head. "He had us, we would have supported him through anything. He trusted us-"

"Trust had nothing to do with it." Taylor snapped, his temper quickly unravelling. "Sean had shit he needed to focus on, he couldn't do that with you demanding his time and affection. If you have a real good think about how he was acting back then, maybe you'll come to realise the world never actually revolved around yo-"

"Taylor..." Quinn whispered harshly, her small hand curling into a fist in the back of his top, drawing him to bite his tongue to keep from continuing to rant. He drew in a deep breath and looked back, his furious expression softening as he net Quinn's gentle, crystalline gaze.

"Craig." Michelle repeated insistently, causing Taylor ti turn forward again, holding his arm out protectively before Quinn, as he faced down the trio.

"C'mere," Craig said, this time stepping forward with a wicked grin curving his lips. "I wanna show you this really cool thing I found... In the cafeteria dumpster, brah."

Taylor grit his teeth as Craig leered at him menacingly, bracing himself to fight the brute off, as Quinn cried out in desperate alarm. "No." Another voice said determinedly, and Taylor turned in surprise to see Rebecca glaring at him furiously. "I got this." She insisted, stalking forward and grabbing Taylor by the elbow to steer him away.

"Man, look at Bex! Taking initiative, Meech!" Craig hollered after them, as Taylor struggled against her hold on him, half turning to see if Quinn was okay. The redhead watched him go, her relief palpable, before she quickly slipped away from the trio of bullies un-noticed; vanishing around the corner of the opposite halls, tears streaming down her face.

"Works for me." Michelle said, beaming a broad smile after them. "We're still shopping on Saturday, right? I saw the cutest sweater at The Boutique the other day..."

"Yeah..." Rebecca called back without looking, and Taylor raised a brow as he saw her face crumple beside him. "I'll call you." She choked, as she dragged Taylor out the door. As soon as they were out the front doors and out of sight, Rebecca finally let go of Taylors arm, allowing him to jerk away at last.

"Uh, ow." He groused, scowling at her accusingly as he rubbed his elbow. "How are your hands so freakin' strong?!" He demanded, his temper flaring as he recalled the tears on Quinn's cheeks.

"Ten years of gymnastics." Rebecca shot back, glaring at him just as determinedly as he was her. She narrowed her eyes as he snorted, his eyes flashing with irritation.

"Gymnastics, huh?" He sniped, shaking his head at her. "Explains how you're flexible enough to walk around with your head up your own ass." He snarked, smirking when her jaw dropped in shock.

"Excuse me?" She demanded, her scowl intensifying as she regained her voice. "What the hell's that supposed to mean?"

"Oh, don't give me that, you're not that stupid." Taylor bit out, turning away and heaving a frustrated sigh as he ran a hand through his hair irritably. "Open your bloody eyes already! Michelle and her goons are just a bunch of petty, malicious assholes who wanna make everyone as butt hurt as they feel over something they know nothing about!" He huffed, shaking his head as he turned back to the fiery redhead. "They're not your friends!" He cried in frustration, thrusting a hand back towards the school in emphasis.

"Ya think I don't know that?!" Rebecca screamed back, surprising Taylor out of his furious temper, as her face fell with guilt and remorse. "Ya think... I want to be Michelle's sidekick?" She sniffed, swallowing back her grief as she raised desperate grey eyes to Taylors deep blue gaze. "Ya think I don't know, she's literally the worst person on the planet?" She asked, curling her arms around her chest, as she hunched in on herself.

Taylor blinked, eyeing her distrustfully for a moment, before finally giving into the gut urge that he should trust her. "Then why, Becca..?" He asked, frowning as he thought back to the pep rally; remembering her flawless tumbling pass, and how she tripped right after looking at Michelle. "Oh..." He said quietly, his heart aching with the startling realisation. "Oh, Becca... Did Michelle threaten you?" 

"Wh-" Rebecca gasped, her head jolting up guiltily, already confirming his suspicions. "What d'ya mean?" She asked, glancing around nervously.

"Every time I see you guys together, you're a different person." Taylor said gently, though Rebecca still flinched as if he'd struck her. "Not you... You kinda act like she has a knife to your throat, to be honest." He added, shaking his head in confusion as she lowered her gaze to her shoes. "What I don't get... Is how she could possibly be a threat to you. You're more popular than her, your family's well off..."

"That just means, I got more to lose..." Rebecca muttered lowly, falling silent for a long moment before glancing over her shoulder suddenly.

"Becca..." Taylor urged, stepping closer and gently touching his fingers to her elbow, drawing her conflicted gaze back to his sincere one. "You can trust me. Whatever it is... I just want to help."

Rebecca blinked, biting her lip uncertainly as Taylor really looked at her for what felt like the first time. He saw deep shadows beneath her dulled eyes, which concealer couldn't quite erase. "Michelle's..." She began hesitantly, choking on the words she had clearly never confided in anyone. Taylor curled his arms around her shoulders, drawing her close and allowing her to bury her face in his chest, her hands calling into fists. "... Blackmailin' me." She whispered into his chest, shuddering in both relief and fear as she finally confessed her burden.

"What?!" Taylor yelped, looking down in wide eyed disbelief, as Rebecca sniffled and drew back to peer up at him brokenly. "Blackmail?!" He repeated, shaking his head and chafing her arms gently, as the puzzle clicked together in his mind. "So the fall, during the pep rally..." He murmured, his distant gaze snapping back to the redhead as she huffed despondently.

"Rule number one..." She sneered, her fingers toying with the mesh of his sleeves distractedly. "Never outshine Michelle on the cheer squad." She said, her face contorting with fury as her eyes filled with tears of frustration. "Closely followed by rule two, never talk back to Michelle..." She spat, finally venting all the things which had clearly weighed on her for some time. Taylor said nothing, comforting her as best he could, and encouraging her to continue venting to him. "And of course, rule three; buy Michelle all the tacky ass sweaters and ankle booties she wants."

When she stopped speaking to pant for breath, Taylor shook his head slowly, his face falling in sympathy. "Damn, Becca..." He breathed, as she swallowed heavily and rested her head on his shoulder while she regained her composure. "What the hell does Michelle have on you..?" He wondered aloud, rubbing the redheads back gently.

"Oh, just a video; which could totally tank my moms re-election campaign..." Rebecca scoffed, with a half delirious giggle. "And also earn me the title of 'worst daughter in the entire universe.' Ya know, the usual."

"I'm pretty sure Michelle's parents must already have dibs on that title..." Taylor huffed, drawing a surprised bark of laughter from the redhead. "You can be, like... Second worst. Vice president of the worst." He said, snickering when she swatted his arm with a soft chuckle, obviously grateful for his attempts to cheer her up.

They were silent for a long moment, Taylor holding Rebecca close as she took comfort in no longer being alone to carry her burden. "... Michelle had this big birthday party over the summer." Rebecca finally said quietly, as Taylor gently swayed them on the spot and rubbed her back encouragingly. "It weren't really my scene, but... I felt like I had to make an appearance, ya know?"

"I do not know, I have never had this problem." Taylor snickered lightly, earning himself another playful swat from her ridiculously strong, delicate hands. "The perils of being popular." He teased, as she rolled her eyes and sighed. 

"The worst part..." Rebecca said thickly, shaking her head regretfully. "Is that I actually had a great night. It was the first time in years, that I'd just let go and had fun. But then..." Rebecca sighed again, drawing back slightly to rub at her temples. "Whatever. Ya probably don't care about my dumbass mistakes. Hell, after tonight ya probably think i deserve 'em."

"Rebecca," Taylor said firmly, capturing her chin between his thumb and index finger, forcing her to meet his determined gaze with her startled one. "You can tell me anything." He said, allowing a moment for his words to sink in, before releasing her chin.

"S-seriously?" She choked, her grey eyes wide with surprise and gratitude.

"Well, I mean... No pressure or anything." He hedged, scratching his ear awkwardly. "But, telling someone at last, might help you feel a little better." He said, taking her hand and squeezing it gently, as she swallowed thickly. "And... I promise, I won't judge you."

"Oh, Taylor..." Rebecca sighed, shaking her head as she huffed and shook her head slowly, a rueful grin curling her lips. "Why oh why, did ya have to be so determinedly uninterested in women? Ya like every girl's dream guy, sayin' stuff like that... And yet ya totally unavailable to us." She huffed, as Taylor sniggered. 

"What can I say? I'm just too picky." He teased, pleased that Rebecca seemed to be regaining her sense of humour at least. He waited, as she watched him and debated for a moment, before finally sighing and reaching up to at the end of her ponytail.

"Okay, fine..." She agreed, leading Taylor back to the fountain they'd met the others by, only a short while ago. Taylor glanced in the direction of the town, his heart lurching as he yearned to go find Diego, but also sensing his friend would want him to help their former friend if he could. "I swear though, Taylor, if ya tell a soul-"

"Yeah, yeah McKenzie, I know." He huffed, joining her by the fountain and sitting beside her. "You know I won't though... Pinkie swear." He said quietly, smirking as he held his little finger out to Rebecca.

The redhead stared at his finger in surprise, before slowly breaking out in a joyful smile, wrapping her own little finger around his as she raised her eyes to his fondly. "Damn, I really missed ya, Taylor." She admitted quietly, as Taylor snorted and leaned forward to butt his head to hers. "Okay... Well, it was like mid June, and Michelle's parents were outta town. By the time I got to hers, the party was already in full swing, waves of thumpin' bass hits hittin' ya as soon as ya walked in her place..." She said, drawing away from Taylors embrace and gripping the edge of the fountain, qs she stared at the floor, lost within her memories. 

"I'd planned to just make an appearance really, had it all planned out in my head." She explained, as Taylor listened intently, his hand over one of her own in support. "A half hour to mingle, an hour to dance, a brief chat with Michelle to wish her many happy returns; then I wanted to be home by eleven thirty."

"Guessing that didn't quite pan out." Taylor snorted, as Rebecca threw him a withering glare. He chuckled quietly, and gestured for her to continue with her story.

"First person I ran into was that asshole captain of the basketball team." She said, shaking her head wryly. "He waved me over to the kitchen, and I pasted my biggest smile onto my face as I went over, because; appearances, ya know?" She said, sighing regretfully. "The guy really is an asshole... He was tryin' to be all charming, obviously thinkin' he could get in my pants, but I think I'd sooner suck a lemon than-"

"Please, no details." Taylor quickly interjected, wrinkling his nose in distaste. "I might like dick and ass, but not when they walk and talk." He said, smiling when Rebecca burst out laughing.

"Oh my god, Taylor..." She gasped, looking up at him as she shook her head fondly. "You're ridiculous sometimes, ya know that, right?"

"It's my specialty." He said, smirking as he winked at her coyly. Rebecca squeezed his hand affectionately, before delving right back into her story.

"Well, anyway; I wanted to get away from him, so I asked if he knew where Michelle was." She said, rolling her eyes as she heaved a weary sigh. "Of course, guys like that never get a hint. He gave me a rough answer, but wanted me to stick around awhile longer. I brushed him off as best I could, headin' after Michelle, and I swear I nearly punched him in the face when he called after me about how I was playin' hard to get..." She said, shivering as her face twisted with disgust. "I just waved though, and I eventually found Michelle with a buncha other girls by the couch."

Rebecca scowled, shaking her head as she recalled the events of the night. "She was complainin' about one of the other cheerleaders bein' higher than her on the pyramid... Sayin' she was the only one with any talent on the squad and she'd be top one day, even if it killed her. Like she just deserved top spot, even without earnin' it, ya know?" She said hotly, her free hand balling tightly in her frustration.

"I'm guessing that you didn't let that one pass by without commenting on it." Taylor said, smiling softly as Rebecca snorted and shook her head.

"I did more than that, I told her straight up she was totally outta line." Rebecca said, beaming over at Taylor proudly. She began to laugh, the sound lightening Taylors heart as he watched her face light up with joy, as it hadn't for so long. "She was so surprised to see me there... Her eyes must've been this big!" She cackled, gesturing with her free hand and drawing Taylor into her laughter. "She was a total creeper about it, all false modesty and shame. I really let rip at her for badmouthing her teammates... and she promised not to do it again."

Rebecca paused, her amusement fading as she turned pensive and thoughtful. "Maybe I should've just cut and run after that. The other girls see, they started gigglin' and Michelle got pretty angry 'bout it, but she hid it real quick." She said, shaking her head at her past self's naivety, as Taylor squeezed her hand comfortingly. "'Course, I went and made the mistake of admittin' my mom weren't home and didn't even know I'd gone out, let alone to some forbidden party... They were so sympathetic, when I mentioned my mom bein' in election mode..." She said, swallowing thickly as she tried to hold back her grief and continue explaining.

"I... I tried to brush it off, but I think Michelle had already decided what to do at that point... had already decided to make me pay some day, though i foubt she knew she would get her chance so soon." Rebecca admitted quietly, looking back down at her shoes. "They were all so nice and friendly, I didn't see through it at all... We started dancing, and hours later, we were still goin'." She said, glancing up at Taylor with a grimace. "I... may have made some lame ass attempts at sexy dancing."

Taylor laughed gently, covering his mouth with his free hand when she slapped him playfully on the shoulder. "I'll give you some lessons for another time." He snickered, as she raised a brow at him. "Like, homecoming or something." He said, as Rebecca snorted and shook her head.

"Once I realised what the time was, I started freakin' out... I knew my mom would kill me if she found out where I'd been." Rebecca sighed, staring vacantly into the dark trees at the edge of the school grounds. "I was headin' out, literally going through the door... When I heard my name, and I saw Craig and that basketball captain by the stairs... I heard 'em, sayin' I would never be someone anyone could date, 'cause I was too boring." She said quietly, swallowing back fresh tears at the stinging memory. "Their laughter is somethin' I still hear whenever I go to sleep at night... If and when I finally manage to."

"Becca..." Taylor murmured, squeezing her hand as his heart clenched for the girl, feeling her raw wound as if it were his own.

"I could hardly see... Everythin' was blurry, and I was trying so hard not to cry. I just made it to the back door, when I slammed straight into Michelle..." Rebecca said thickly, fighting off her pain and drawing I a shaky breath so she could continue. "I was gonna go, tried to leave... but Michelle seemed so concerned. She took me upstairs so nobody would see me cryin'. She wanted to know what happened, and I fobbed her off a couple times but..."

"Eventually you couldn't keep it in anymore?" Taylor guessed, his free hand rising to rub at Rebecca's back gently. The redhead nodded, sniffing as she glanced up at Taylor brokenly.

"Exactly." She whispered, clutching at his hand almost desperately. "Finally, I... just had to know. I asked if people really thought I was borin'."

"Becca..." Taylor groaned, shaking his head as she looked over at him guiltily. "You must've known that was a bad idea..." He huffed, trying to be supportive still, despite his urge to knock some sense into the redhead.

"At that point, I don't think I cared." Rebecca admitted, swallowing thickly as she closed her eyes briefly. When she reopened them, her grey eyes latched onto Taylors deep blue orbs intently. "She was tryin' to cheer me up, in her own weird way, I think... But when she said that I had the perfect life, I just, snapped." She said, her lower lip trembling as Taylor reached up to gently wipe away her tears. "I told her... how I hated my life. And then, I just... I couldn't stop. It all came out, Taylor." 

"That the perfect family, aren't so perfect?" He asked quietly, as Rebecca blinked in surprise. Taylor avoided her eyes as he chuckled, continuing to gently dab at her eyes. "Let's just say I have a very intimate understanding of just how to put on a show." He said evasively.

"Taylor -" 

"Keep going." Taylor insisted, meeting her eyes briefly as he cut off her concerned comment, before looking away again.

"... Yeah, ya right." Rebecca said slowly, still frowning at Taylor. "I just let rip, about everythin'. How mom and dad can't stand each other, and don't even bother tryin' to hide the fact they're both havin' affairs from me..." She said, shaking her head as she looked away shamefully. "I should've just shut up and gone home, but instead all these words just kep pourin' outta me... How every night was some sorta screamin' match between my folks, unless they turned it on me for steppin' outta line." She sighed, tipping her head back and looking up at the stars. "I started cryin', complaining about how I didnt even think they cared about me at all anymore, and how tired I was of havin' to be the perfect daughter in our imperfect family..."

Rebecca's hand curled into a fist, her expression turning wistful as she watched the glittering stars. "Michelle gave me a hug. An actual hug." She snorted quietly, shaking her head slowly in disbelief. "I don't... remember the last time someone did that. I think it was before-" She said, trailing off as her cheeks flushed slightly and she looked back at the ground.

Taylor swallowed, his mind easily filling in the blanks. Before I screwed everything up for everyone... He thought, lowering his gaze to where he still held her hand. Before I got one of my best friends killed, and dragged you all along with me. Diego... Rebecca... Everyone. I'm so sorry. He thought, his throat constricting painfully.

"The uh, the next mornin', I woke up to a text from Michelle." Rebecca said, clearing her throat as she wiped her eyes roughly.

"Don't tell me..." Taylor guessed, his voice thick from the heavy emotions weighing on his heart. He met her eyes, as she nodded knowingly.

"Yup." She sighed wearily, reaching up to tug at the end of her ponytail again. "She recorded the whole damn thing on her phone."

"Skank sunk low, bro." Taylor said, shaking his head forlornly as Rebecca gave a surprised bark of laughter. 

"You sound just like Craig." She giggled, as Taylor wrinkled his nose in disgust and feigned outrage.

"Uh, ew." He sneered, poking the redhead in the arm. "Excuse you, but that was gross. I demand you rescind that awful comment, right now, else I close the bank of Taylor hugs, effective immediately, McKenzie."

"Oh no, not the hugs..!" Rebecca teased, sniggering when he narrowed his eyes at her. "Okay, okay... Just cuz it sounded like him, doesn't mean ya anythin' like him..." She finally conceded, as hw poked her arm again for good measure, though he grinned as he did it.

His expression faltered, his irritation at the blonde returning as he thought about how Rebecca had been made to feel for the past several months. "So, even after someone actually showed a little trust in her, she couldn't see past her own agenda..." He said, shaking his head. "Her and Craig have really lost themselves, they never used to even consider being so... horrible!"

"Yeah... well." Rebecca said awkwardly, hunching her shoulders self consciously, before she straightened and looked over at him gratefully. "But, tellin' someone at last feel good. I kept that bottled up so long..."

"Hey, anything that lets me see that smile again, makes me glad to have been able to help." Taylor said, bumping his fist to her jaw affectionately, as she rolled her eyes. "But..." He said, his light tone turning serious as he frowned at her. "Maybe if you told your parents what happened-"

"What the hell, Taylor? Are you insane?!" Rebecca cried, glancing around as her voice echoed around the empty fountain area. She quickly lowered her voice to a harsh whisper, leaning closer as she scowled at him. "Dad would ground me for twenty years solid, and then my mom would literally murder me!" She hissed, shaking her head vehemently. "If she found out I endangered her precious campaign..? She'd never let me leave the house again. And if that video ever gets out..." She sighed, her face scrunching into an angry snarl. "I can just see the headlines now... Mayor's daughter tells all! McKenzie's marriage, family and entire political career; a sham! Urgh..."

"So what, you're just gonna sit back and let Michelle take everything from you?" Taylor demanded, scowling at Rebecca's suddenly slumping shoulders.

"I'll..." She said, swallowing heavily as she ran her hands over her ponytail distractedly. "I'll figure something out. I just, I dunno what yet." She finally concluded, trailing off as the front doors of the school opened. She stiffened, her face crumpled with guilt as Quinn emerged, her eyes locked on the pavement and her face still wet with tears as she quickly moved towards the bus stop.

"Quinn!" Taylor called, causing her to look up in surprise. He waved, releasing Rebecca's hand and pushing himself to his feet as she gasped and hurried over.

"Oh my god, Taylor!" She choked, wrapping him in a tight embrace and holding him close as she shivered, sniffing into his shoulder. "Are you alright? I was so worried!" 

"Hey, don't worry about me, I'm fine... You should worry about yourself more." He said, snorting when she merely held him tighter in response. "I was just..." He trailed off, as Rebecca set her hand on his shoulder and met his gaze confidently.

"He was just helpin' out a stupid girl, who stood by and let her friend get hurt too many times... When I should've been helpin' ya." She said, as Quinn raised her head in surprise, blinking at Rebecca distrustfully.

"You mean you've been doing Michelle's dirty work again, and been picking on Taylor?" She asked, her gaze hardening as suspicion filled her crystalline eyes. "What'd you do? Did she hurt yo-?"

"Why does everyone think I'm the one gonna get hurt?" Taylor whined playfully, snickering when Rebecca jabbed him in the arm in retribution, though her lips twitched at his teasing. "Honestly, its kinda insulting how you all think I'm some sorta weakling..."

"Shut up, Taylor." Rebecca snorted, rolling her eyes at him briefly, before looking over at Quinn and biting her lip uncertainly. "I... I'm so sorry, Quinn. I never wanted you to get hurt, for anyone to get hurt; that's why I got the idiot here, outta their way." She said, gesturing between Taylor and the school, ignoring his indignant huff and pout. "I hate the way those guys treat you. I-"

"Then why don't you say something?" Quinn asked, cutting Rebecca off angrily. "Why don't you do something other than stand there and let them?! I can't... I cant stop myself from remembering who she used to be, the friend she was before I..."

"Quinn, I'm so sorry." Rebecca said quietly, looking over at the other redhead imploringly. "It's complicated... and also totally my own fault. But, I won't stand by anymore, no matter what happens." She swore, glancing at Taylor as her lips twitched suddenly. She extended her hand towards Quinn, offering her little finger as Taylor burst out laughing.

"Oh my god, night of the pinkie promises." He snorted, as Quinn looked between them both as if doubting their sanity. "Look Quinn, suffice to say Becca's been having a rough time herself... But I think if we all stick together, like we used to... We can actually start turning things around again." He said warmly, grinning affectionately as Quinn slowly brightened.

"He's right." Rebecca sighed, as if the confession pained her. "So, what d'ya say, beautiful? Maybe, I could buy ya a cinnamon hot cocoa, and explain everythin'?"

"Wow, two in one night? I'm proud of you, Becca..." Taylor snickered, yelping when the fiery red head flashed her grey eyes his way and stomped on his foot.

"But, ya know..." She continued quickly, as if Taylor hadn't interrupted her. "I'll also, totally understand if ya wanna just tell me to goto hell." She said, biting her lip as she gazed at Quinn hopefully. "You deserve way better friends than what I've been to ya..."

Quinn frowned, glancing up at Taylor briefly before staring hard at Rebecca for a long moment, the other redhead squirming beneath her crystalline gaze. Finally, she broke into a shy smile and wrapped her little finger around Rebecca's. "... You remembered."

"Duh," Rebecca snorted, as she and Quinn shared a gentle embrace. "Like I could forget it. We used to drink it all the time at sleepovers... Best friend privileges only." She added haughtily, when Taylor opened his mouth to protest his never being invited.

"Pfft, fine. I see how it is." He huffed, as the pair of redheads both giggled and began to move towards Rebecca's car. "What, I don't even get a lift?" He called, laughing when Rebecca spread her palms and winked, gesturing to her two seat car. "Women." He sighed, throwing her a wink in return as she mouthed grateful thanks to him, before disappearing into the car and driving away. 

Good job, Becca... Taylor thought as he smiled, watching them drive around the far bend, before hitching his bag higher on his shoulder and continuing down the road to town on foot. He half jogged the short distance, and within a few minutes he was turning onto Main Street, where he immediately spotted his friends waiting in front of Gayle's Hardware. "Sorry, sorry!" He said, shaking his head as he raised his hands in placation of their irritated expressions. "Got held up by some Michelle drama. I had go to make sure Quinn and Rebecca were okay."

"Are they alright?" Sean asked quickly, his eyes clouding with guilt at the mention of his ex. "Was Craig-"

"Dude, I know you needed space, but I really think its time you fixed your damn mess and stopped hiding from them." Taylor groused, his frustration from earlier in the evening returning. "Seriously, I think you need to get a grip and just tell them. Maybe if you explain, they won't behave like such mega-dicks all the time." Sean lowered his eyes, his jaw locking tightly as Taylor sighed and ran a hand through his hair, glancing at Raj and Zahra as they pointedly looked away from them. "Ready to head out?" Taylor asked wearily.

"I was thinking we oughta gear up before we go." Raj said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at the hardware store, causing Sean's hands to ball into fists. 

"Leave momma's shop outta this!" He growled, as Taylor raised a brow at him, unimpressed by the unnecessary display. "Hell, just leave her outta this! We-"

"Look, doodlejump!" Raj interrupted, holding up his palms in placation. "All I mean is, that dirt monster that went after Taylor; could still out there... Plus, who knows what else, dude."

Sean glowered a moment longer, before sighing and nodding his head dejectedly. "Ahem... Ignoring Sean's one man depiction of over protective son, Raj's got a point." Taylor sais, clearing his throat as he looked around the small group. "If Mr. Red is back... we should be ready for anything."

Zahra held up her finger, and Taylor frowned before realising she had her cell phone held up to her ear. "Yeah, well, I'm telling you now." She said dryly, rolling her eyes at the voice which replied over her phone. "Look, Taylor and I are just working on a project together is all, and it's really..." She paused suddenly, before scowling darkly. "No, Dad. And that was one time, by the way. Ugh, here, I'll prove it." She said hotly, shoving the phone onto Taylors hands.

"What do I want with this?!" Taylor whispered harshly, covering the mouthpiece with his hand quickly. "I don't wanna talk to him!"

"Yeah, well, neither do I!" Zahra growled, scowling at Taylor like it was his fault her father was so suspicious of her.

"I don't know what to say! He'll know..! I can't-!" Taylor protested, narrowing his eyes at Zahra as he tried to shove the phone back at her.

"Do it, dork!" Zahra snapped, glaring at him as she shoved the phone back towards him.

"I'm not doing it!" Taylor insisted, trying to push the phone back into her hands again.

"Oh, yes you are!" Zahra fumed, as they continued to thrust the phone back and forth between them. "Or this fun little ghost hunt, is so over."

Finally Taylor grit his teeth and scowled, raising the phone to his ear. "Oh, hi! Mr Namazi..." He said, trying to sound warm and less guilty than he felt. "It's been a long time! Huh?" He frowned, listening to the voice on the other end of the phone as Zahra smirked victoriously. "Yeah, I'm glad we're talking again too. Can't say how much I missed her... sparkling personality." He said dryly, narrowing his eyes at Zahra as she snorted in amusement.

"Wha..?" He choked, spluttering as his eyes widened and his cheeks turned red. "Uh, yeah... Yeah, she is completely safe from me, sir." He coughed awkwardly, as Zahra's cocky grin fell from her face in disbelief. "Yes... I am, yes. Completely, yes. No sir, there is no chance whatsoever... There will be no 'funny business' of any kind, I promise, yes." He said, as Zahra hid her face in her hands, mortified by what she suspected her father was asking. "Okay! Well... Yes, this is... super awkward, yes. Thankyou, Mr. Namazi. Yep, she won't be home too late, no. Yeah, not as much as I regret asking her over. Yeah. Thanks. Okay, bye!" He said quickly, hanging up and firmly shoving the phone back into Zahra's hands with a scowl. "That was the most awkward moment of my life."

"Yeah, me too." Zahra sighed, putting her phone away as she cleared her throat. She perked considerably as she realised she was now free for the evening. "Man, sick!" She smirked, bumping her fist to Taylors shoulder as he pouted at her. "One call from you-"

"And an embarrassing conversation about how your virtue is entirely safe from me..." Taylor groused, though Zahra ignored his interjection entirely.

"... and I get to ditch curfew?" She sniggered, drawing in a deep breath as she looked around the town with a calculated gaze. "I don't know what to do with all this power..."

"Maybe next time we'll go on a date." Taylor spat mutinously, though his lips twitched against his will, betraying his amusement as Zahra began to cackle loudly.

"What, you mean this isn't a date?" Zahra sneered, rolling her eyes as she smirked at him. "But I wore my sexy monster stomping boots and everything."

"I hate you so much right now." Taylor snorted, shaking his head as he gave in and laughed, looking down at her boots with a wry grin. "Do you actually have any other kind, though?"

"So, uh..." Raj said awkwardly, clearing his throat loudly as Taylor looked over to see that he and Sean were both standing a short distance away, clearly disturbed by everything they'd heard. "If that whole weird exchange is over... can we go buy some hardware?"

"Yeah, I guess." Sean sighed, looking at his mothers store reluctantly, before snorting and looking back at the group. "Better be ready to defend ourselves from all those spooooooky bushes." He chuckled quietly, rolling his eyes.

Raj's expression slowly darkened, the humour hardly seeming amusing to him. "Very funny." He said dryly, before turning and leading the way into the store. Once inside his friends wandered off to browse the aisles, Sean pausing a moment to glance at the counter, before seeming to relax suddenly and disappearing himself.

Taylor stopped in his tracks, staring at the guy behind the counter in surprise. "You?!" He choked, immediately feeling his cheeks colour with embarrassment at his reaction.

The guy looked up from his phone, a slow smirk of recognition twisting his lips, as his cerulean gaze swept over him. "Well, if it ain't the blast from the past..." He snickered, tossing his phone aside as he propped his elbow on the counter and leaning his chin on his hand. "How's it goin', Taylor?"

"Hmm..." Taylor purred appreciatively, not even trying to deny to himself that he was very much enjoying the sound of his name on the guys tongue. "Sounds like someone figured out how we know each other." He said, forgetting about his friends entirely and sauntering up to the counter playfully, the guy watching him with obvious amusement. "Gonna let me in on the secret?" He asked coyly, waggling his brows suggestively, before feigning a innocent gasp. "Oh, wait, were you the guy I was messaging online... The one I was supposed to send that video..." He said in a sly whisper.

The guy blinked, his eyes wide in surprise as his chin slipped free of his hand rest. Taylor laughed as the guy righted himself, running a hand through his long sandy hair as he swallowed heavily. "Well no it ain't, but damn... I'm kinda wishin' it were now." He said gruffly, clearing his throat as his cheeks darkened slightly.

"I'm sorry, I couldn't resist." Taylor snickered, biting his lip as he looked up at the guy from beneath his lashes. "There is no online guy... or, offline guy, or just... any guy. Right now." He said, clearing his throat as his attempt at flirting backfired. "Ahem, you just looked way too smug at that moment. Had to bring you down a peg or two."

"Damn, I think you just brought me down a whole damn ladder." The guy snorted, shaking his head as he eyed Taylor with thoughtful consideration.

"Well, at least I got something useful out of it." Taylor hummed, grinning when the guy raised a brow at him skeptically. "I found out that if I did happen have that video... You'd be interested in seeing it."

The guy snorted, rolling his eyes as he leaned back from the counter. "Damn, outsmarted by a school kid." He groused, folding his arms over his chest and chuckling at Taylors outraged pout. "Sorry, eighteen year old." He said, smiling when Taylor laughed.

"I'm never gonna live that down, am I?" Taylor sighed dramatically, shaking his head forlornly, despite the smile on his face. "So. C'mon..." He said at last, taking up the guy's place and leaning forward on the counter. "'Fess up, how'd we know each other?" 

"I guess I could tell ya..." The guy huffed, stroking his stubble thoughtfully as he grinned crookedly and slowly leaned forward on the counter again himself, leaving only a short space between them. "But it's so much more fun to mess with ya..." He drawled in a husky whisper, as Taylor grinned and bit his lip, shifting his weight slightly as excitement lit up his nerves.

"You only wanna mess with me?" Taylor shot back lowly, tipping his chin toward the guy and startling a laugh from him. Taylors heart skipped a beat, a brief rush of power flooding him as he considered that he was actually flirting with someone; intentionally, and they seemed to be returning his interest.

"Ya really are a forward little thing, ain't ya?" He huffed, shaking his head as his eyes glittered with amusement. "And here I thought ya couldn't get anymore forward than this mornin'..." Taylors deep blue eyes met the guys cerulean gaze, briefly lingering to pick out the rare flecks of green within them before his brows began dancing suggestively, making the guy laugh again. "Fearless, huh?

"Hmm, depends what I'm doing and how bad I want something." Taylor said, cocking his head slightly to show off a little of his neck, grinning lopsidedly when he caught the guy glance at the offering.

"And uh, how bad do ya want... whatever ya might be wantin', right now..?" The guy asked, slightly hesitant in his distracted curiosity, but his confidence quickly returning. Taylor smirked broadly and winked as he waved his brows playfully, giving no verbal response.

"Alright, I'll give ya a hint then..." The guy said, clearing his throat as his eyes narrowed slightly, raising his eyes to Taylors curious and amused gaze again. "I figured out who ya were... when my sister mentioned that you helped her out at ya little pep rally this mornin'."

"Huh? Pep rall... oh!" Taylor gasped, his eyes widening as he ran them over the guy again, this time in realisation and awe; as he finally put name to face, his cheeks staining with a hot red, as the guy smirked at him. "Holy shit... You're Rebecca's brother!" He gasped, blinking in disbelief as the guy snorted at his shock. 

"Bingo!" He snickered, his eyes flicking over Taylor briefly in appraisal. "You always were the smarty pants of that little group..." He said, as Taylors gut twisted pleasantly at the praise, his heart fluttering in rapidly building attraction.

"Oh my god... Hurricane Jake McKenzie..." He snickered, as Jake groaned and rubbed his brow.

"I ain't never gettin' rid of that name, am I?" He sighed, shaking his head ruefully as Taylor laughed.

"Well, you broke a lot of hearts when you ran off to join the navy, you know?" He said, eyeing Jake with redoubled interest. "I'm fairly certain half the town is still in shock from the way you took off."

"Oh, really?" Jake snorted, though his cheeks were noticeably darker as he met Taylors gaze again. "What can I say, I'm a popular guy." He sighed, as if he were confessing to carrying some great burden, his eyes flicking over Taylor again as he snickered in amusement. "You one of those 'lil broken hearts?" He asked slyly, drawing a full blown laugh from Taylor.

"Wow, so modest too!" He chuckled, winking as he leaned in slightly closer, biting his lip as if about to confess a secret. "You have to earn that answer..." He stage whispered, as Jake huffed and shook his head in amusement.

"Ya actually givin' me a run for my money here..." Jake admitted fondly, examining Taylor as he leaned back to his former position again. "Ya obviously get plenty o' practise at this sorta thing." He said, clearing his throat thickly.

"Wow, that was the worst and most obvious prod for information I've ever heard." Taylor laughed, his cheeks darkening as he lowered his gaze to the table. "But... You're wrong, in pretty much every way." He said, glancing up from beneath his lashes as Jake frowned, before his eyes suddenly widened in realisation.

"Ya gotta be shittin' me..." Jake choked, standing straight as he began to pat his chest, coughing from the shock as Taylor chuckled and lowered his eyes. "Damn. If this is how ya act as a..." Jake began, clearing his throat again, as he ran his eyes over Taylor as if seeing him for the first time. "Hell, I feel sorry for whoever tries to deny ya anythin' ya want, put it that way..." He huffed, as Taylor raised a brow.

"That mean you wouldn't even bother trying to?" Taylor asked, a lopsided grin spreading across his face as Jake snorted and ran a hand through his hair distractedly.

"Guess I walked into that one..." He huffed, pausing a moment as he met Taylors eyes and seemed to consider his answer carefully. "I guess it'd depend, on just what ya were askin' me for..."

"Well that's a boring answer..." Taylor said, pouting as Jake chuckled and shook his head.

"It's a safe answer." He corrected, and Taylor felt his heart swell at the unspoken confession that Jake might have wanted to give a very unsafe answer, if they weren't in so public a environment.

"Hmm..." Taylor hummed, narrowing his eyes playfully, as Jake folded his arms over his chest and leaned back against the opposite side of the counter. "So, how's things been for you then, since you up and abandoned our delightful little town?" 

"Pretty good, I guess." Jake said, jumping on the safer conversation gratefully. "I got in the Navy, and I'm the best damn pilot they've seen in a decade." He said, shrugging his shoulder as he looked away. "Booked some leave, figurin' I should be around for campaign season... Make sure Mom and Becca don't murder each other. Knew I'd need a bit of space sometimes though, so figured gettin' a part time job here would ensure I could always get outta dodge when I need to."

"Very thoughtful of you." Taylor said, sensing a faint hint of dishonesty, but choosing not to pursue it. Guys entitled to his privacy... Besides, maybe he'll open up later. He thought, smiling as Jake noticeably relaxed when he said nothing further about his time away. "So, are you happy to be home?" He asked, unsubtly changing the subject.

"Sure," Jake said unconvincingly, shrugging his shoulder again. "Been good to see Becca and catch up with a few old friends... And meetin' cocky little brats, can't say that's been borin'." He snorted, casting a sly glance back at Taylor as he grinned and snickered proudly. He sobered however as Jake sighed, rolling his eyes and shaking his head in obvious frustration. "Glad I'm stayin' at a friends though, 'cause I don't think I could handle stayin' in the family house again... Definitely can't say that I missed my folks lecture's, either." He huffed, rolling his eyes. "Every time I go over there it's 'come home and go to college' this and 'get a haircut' that-"

"No, don't do that!" Taylor yelped suddenly, flushing hotly when Jake blinked at him in surprise. "I mean, uh..." He coughed, clearing his throat as he leaned back from the counter and tried to aoear nonchalant. "It suits you... as is." He said awkwardly, looking at his hand as he drew nonsense patterns on the edge of the counter.

"Heh, well I weren't actually considerin' it, but I'm suddenly feelin' strangely attached to my rebel hair." Jake finally chuckled, eyeing Taylors embarrassed blush with a grin. "Thanks for the vote of confidence, Boy Scout."

"Boy Scout?" Taylor yelped, wrinkling his nose as he looked up at Jake curiously, who began to sniggered at his startled expression.

"It's a habit I got from my bunkmate... I nickname people I'm fond of." Jake admitted, as Taylor raised a brow curiously.

"'Fond of', huh?" He asked, his lip curling into a smirk as Jake took a turn at flushing guiltily. "Well, I guess in that case I better start calling you, Top Gun..." He said, grinning cockily when Jake laughed at him.

"I see what'cha did there, very clever." He snorted, shaking his head. "But you'll never keep it up, Boy Scout. Takes talent and determination to stick it out and get to be as good as me..." 

"Pfft, just watch me Flyboy." Taylor huffed, as Jake's grin grew, seeming genuinely pleased with the direction of their interaction. "I'll be thinking up the most badass nicknames you ever heard." 

"Sure ya will." Jake laughed, rolling his eyes as Taylor smirked and made a mental note to look up a bunch of pilot related nicknames on his phone when he got home.

"Hmm, I'll soon show you, doubter." He huffed, as Jake continued to chuckle at him, watching him fondly. Taylor grinned, leaning his hip against the side of the counter, as he raised a brow at Jake consideringly. "So... Are you single?"

Jake choked on his laughter, his eyes lit with amusement as he ran them over Taylor again. "Real subtle there, Boy Scout." He snorted, as Taylor shrugged his shoulder lightly. The pilot smirked as he cocked his head, leaning forward on the counter again. "As it so happens... I am." He said slowly, his eyes intent as if he could sense the way Taylors heart sped up. "Why, ya takin' a survey? He asked playfully.

"Nope." Taylor replied, waving his brows briefly as Jake snickered. "Maybe I'm just showing friendly curiosity in the towns lone wolf." He said lightly, pretending his heart wasn't crashing rapidly against his chest.

"Uh huh..." Jake hummed, smirking knowingly as he straightened from the counter again. "So, anyway..." He said, clearing his throat ans pointedly changing the subject. "What brings you to Gayle's Hardware, 'ya local source for all things home improvement'?" He asked curiously.

"Uh, home improvement?" Taylor replied stupidly, laughing when Jake rolled his eyes at him. "I was just-" Taylor trailed off, his eyes catching by something hanging up on the wall behind Jake's head. "What is that?!" He demanded breathlessly, his eyes widening as he beheld the tool.

"Hmm?" Jake hummed, turning to follow Taylors eyes to see what had grabbed his attention. "Oh, the pole saw?" He asked, reaching up to take the tool down from its hooks and handing it to Taylor over the counter.

"Ooh..." Taylor huffed, hefting the pole saw in his hands, unable to suppress a wide grin. "This is so awesome..!" He choked giddily, biting his lip as he examined the tool closely.

"Nice, ain't it? Perfect for prunin' those high up branches." Jake explained with a perfect salesman pitch. "Or ya know, fightin' off zombies." He snorted, as Taylor yelped and almost dropped the pole saw in surprise, recalling just what he was after such an item for. "Unfortunately," Jake drawled slowly, raising a brow at Taylors reaction. "It's also just a display model. Should have 'em back in stock in a few days though."

"Aw, damn..." Taylor sighed, reluctantly handing the pole saw back. "The stuff I could've done with that." He huffed petulantly, as Jake returned it to its place on the wall. "Guess I'll just... look around then." He pouted, looking up at the pole saw longingly.

"Sure thing." Jake said, turning and leaning back against the wall. "Just whistle if ya need me, Boy Scout."

"Yes sir, Top Gun, sir!" Taylor snickered, saluting roughly and startling a rough bark of laughter from Jake. He winked, smiling as he backed away from the counter, bumping into a display and cursing as he grabbed at it to stop anything falling. His cheeks burnt as he stabilised everything, turning quickly at Jake's soft chuckles and hurrying along a narrow aisle to hide and die of embarrassment out of the pilots sight.

"Oh my god..." He mumbled, burying his burning face in his hands. I finally master the art of flirting with a hot guy, and I manage to end up seeming like a total klutz... He thought, running his hands up through his hair in frustration. Maybe I'll get lucky and he just... didn't notice that whole, thing. He groused to himself.

"Hey Taylor!" Sean called, as he rounded a corner to hide at the back of the store. He turned to see his friend holding a large bag of cement. "Think I can lift this over my head?" He asked, grinning broadly as he looked over at Taylor excitedly.

"I think you're gonna hurt yourself..." Taylor snickered, cocking his head as he smirked and raised a brow as he stepped closer. "But, if you really wanna lift something... You should try lifting me!"

"Challenge accepted!" Sean laughed, promptly tossing the bag of dry cement aside as Taylor laughed. "Stand like this..." He said, crossing his arms and ankles. Taylor mimicked him, smirking as Sean hooked his hands under Taylors knee and bicep. "Ready?" He asked, his eyes alight with amusement. "One, two, three!" He huffed, hoisting Taylor up onto his chest and then over his head.

"Whoa!" Taylor snorted, giggling wildly. "Oh my god! Okay, okay! Now put me down, you... strong person." He snickering as Sean continued to hold him aloft over his head.

"Hang on!" Sean huffed, smirking up at him smugly. "Just a couple more reps in the set!" He said, and Taylor laughed helplessly as Sean pressed him overhead a few more times, before gently setting him back on his feet.

"Damn, Sean!" Taylor snickered, stumbling as he regained his feet and looked over Sean's powerful arms. "You're a beast!" He laughed, as Sean grinned proudly. "Just try not to wear yourself out before we even get to the woods."

"Heh," Sean huffed, smirking as Taylor snickered in amusement. "I'm just getting warmed up." He said, winking as he began doing curls with a coiled up garden hose. Taylor laughed and shook his head, wandering off to check out another aisle.

It only took a few minutes to find Raj, browsing another aisle near the back of the store. "Find anything useful?" He asked, tipping his chin toward the display before his friend.

"Not unless you wanna go after Mr. Red with a bunch of duct tape and twine, dude." Raj scoffed, as Taylor gave a half hearted laugh and moved to scan the shelves on the other side.

He laid his hand over his chest, feeling his heart race nervously at the mention of Mr. Red, hysteria bubbling in his veins. "I don't know how you can be so calm." He said quietly, as Raj raised a curious brow at him. "I'm on the verge of a breakdown over here..."

"Yeah, looked like it when you were busy flirting with the store guy and Sean." Raj said, chuckling quietly as Taylor flushed.

"That was... ahem, a very tactful distraction from my nerves." Taylor protested with a pout, pointedly looking away as his cheeks flared with heat.

Raj snorted, dropping the subject with a shake of his head. "Calm..." He began a moment later, swallowing thickly as Taylor looked over at him uncertainly. "Calm isn't the word I'd use. I just..." He said, his gaze turning distant as he clearly thought back to their turbulent past. "I... have to know." He sighed, rubbing his hands over his eyes. "Taylor, dude... This has been haunting me for years. What we did... what he did."

Taylor was struck by a sudden, vibrant memory; a small child with eyes lit by delight, giggling wildly as they ran through the trees. "Come on, Taylor!" They called eagerly, as Taylor shivered and violently shook himself from the memory, the happy laughed of his childhood echoing in the back of his mind.

"Yeah..." He gasped, exhaling a long and shaky sigh as he scrubbed a hand over his jaw. "Me too." He said, swallowing heavily as Raj drew in an unsteady breath.

"Mom... blames me, you know?" The large boy admitted distantly, avoiding Taylors guilt ridden eyes by staring at the display before him. "For... everything. Her sister's suicide, for dad leaving right after."

"I'm sure that's not true, Raj-" Taylor began, only to fall silent as the larger boy chuckled darkly, the sound lacking any warmth or amusement.

"It is, dude." He said lowly, his eyes distant as he thought of his mother. "She's said it to my face. Regularly, actually." He huffed, drawing in a deep breath and clearing his throat. "My Grandma used to tell me it wasn't true but, she uh... she hasn't exactly reassured me for awhile."

"Raj," Taylor said awkwardly, reaching out for the large boys shoulder hesitantly. "I'm so sorry..." He said, as Raj shrugged.

"The worst part is that... and this sounds lame as hell doodlejump, I know, but the day I lost my cousin..." Raj said slowly, looking down at him with such a broken expression that Taylors heart melted with grief and guilt alike. "I lost my whole family. My mom, my dad, you guys... everyone."

"Raj..." Taylor said, steeling his heart with determination. "You didn't lose me, dude." He said warmly, a small smile gracing his lips. "I might've got a little waylaid for awhile... But, I'm here for you now. And I always will be." He promised firmly.

"That's corny, dude." Raj huffed quietly, shaking his head slowly. "Also, not true." He added, as he averted his eyes.

"Trying to have a moment here, Raj." Taylor groused, pouting as Raj refused to meet his eyes again. He bit his lip, shuffling his foot guiltily. "I never wanted all of us to fall apart... I hope it's not too late for us to come back together."

Raj shrugged indifferently, but Taylor saw a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "Anything's possible." He huffed, as Taylor sighed and raised his eyes to the ceiling.

"I wish things were different..." He said quietly, biting his lip as he thought back to how close they'd once been; and how that closeness had disappeared in the space of a single, awful day.

"Yeah." Raj said, nodding his agreement. "Me too." He said, the pair of them falling silent as they continued to browse the aisle until Zahra's voice drifted over to them.

"Yo, Taylor, ready to have your mind blown?" She asked, smirking as Taylor turned to see her standing with Sean at the end of the aisle. Zahra held up a baseball bat in one hand, and a garland of barbed wire in the other.

"Someone's been playing too many zombie shooters." Sean teased, grinning despite himself at the obvious idea Zahra had put together.

"Ignore this philistine." Zahra scoffed, tossing the barbed wire over the bat so she could press her hand to Sean's face and shove him away with a smirk. "He's just jealous of how totally badass you'll look swinging this around."

"Niiiice." Taylor drawled, grinning widely as he eyed the potential weapon. "It clobbers, it shreds... it bashes in dirt monster brains." He said, chuckling as he held out his hands and made eager grabby gestures at the materials.

"Damn... yeah, that'll work." Raj agreed, his eyes wide as he considered the damage the weapon could inflict. "You gonna get it, dude?"

"Hmm..." Taylor hummed thoughtfully, biting his lip as he pretended to consider briefly. "Hell yeah, I'm getting it!" He finally huffed, an uncontrollable grin spreading across his face.

"A badass bat like that has to have a name." Zahra insisted, her eyes narrowing as Taylor opened his mouth to deny the idea, causing him to rapidly change his mind.

"I uh, I guess I'll name it..." He said, holding the items out before him and cocking his head in consideration. "Candy." He decided, snickering at such a cheesy name for the bat. 

"Candy, huh?" Zahra asked, nodding her head thoughtfully. "Rad. I like it." She said after a pause, as Taylor grinned and looked around his friends with a newfound determination and hope in his heart.

"Okay, we all done here?" He asked, surprisingly eager to be on their way at last. He watched as Sean and Zahra both nodded, while Raj hesitated a moment, loitering by a corner display.

"Yeah..." The large boy hummed distractedly, half turned towards a shelf full of flashlights. Taylor raised a brow, looking his friend over briefly, before glancing at the flashlights.

"Did you wanna get something..?" He asked, as Raj sighed and swept the beanie hat from his head, scratching his ear briefly, before resettling his hat over his tied up hair.

"I guess..." He said slowly, his lips twisting into a grimace. "I was just thinking about how dark it's gonna be out there. I don't love the idea of something sneaking up on us..." He sighed, before gasping and reaching toward the display. "This one could even double as a club!" He said eagerly, grinning as he picked up a heavy black flashlight. He looked at the price tag, and flinched, before quickly putting it back on the shelf. "Uh, never mind. I'll be fine." He said awkwardly, clearing his throat and looking away.

Taylor frowned, stepping around the large boy to look at the display for himself. Well, it's not like I'm short... He thought, thinking of the overly generous allowance which was deposited into his account every week, in order to save his parents returning home. I could probably get five of these and still have enough to last me til another three weeks time, even with everything I'd have to get... He hummed, grinning as he picked up the flashlight and pressed it into Raj's hand. "I got this." He said, as Raj blinked at him in surprise. "Call it an early birthday present... Or, a late one; for all those that I've missed."

"Seriously, dude?!" Raj cried, gripping the flashlight tightly in his hands, his eyes wide as he looked from the object to Taylor in disbelief. "Thanks, Taylor!"

"Don't mention it." He said, smiling as affection swelled in his heart for his friend. He carried his items up to the counter, pointing to the flashlight in Raj's hand as well, and Jake rang him up with a raised brow.

"Find everythin' ya need?" He asked, eyeing the bat and the barbed wire with open curiosity. "And do I even wanna ask, just what ya gonna be gettin' up to?"

"One, I believe we're all set, yeah." Taylor said, biting his lip briefly as he handed over his card, as his cheeks coloured slightly. "Secondly, no, you do not... Unless you're especially interested in my plans to redesign my bedroom."

Jake coughed, clearing his throat as Taylor winked at him, when he looked over at him in surprise. "Alright, then." He said, tactfully avoidin the subject of Taylors bedroom, and handing Taylor his card back with a final glance over him. "See you around then, Boy Scout."

"Definitely." Taylor said slyly, his heart lurching in his chest as his cheeks began to heat further, when he heard his friends begin to giggle behind him. "Ahem, see ya Top Gun..." He said, steeling himself as he opened the door and stepped out into the cool night air, his hip catching on the handle as he looked back at Jake. He cursed, flushing in embarrassment as the man behind the counter snorted at him and shook his head.

"Urgh, kill me now..." Taylor groaned, as the others followed him out with amused expressions.

"Careful what you wish for little doodlejump..." Raj warned, as he led the small group through the back roads out of town. "Remember where we're going." He said, as Taylor hummed and sobered, beginning to wrap the barbed wire around his new bat. He looked up as they reached the edge of the dark woods, the group all pausing in tense silence. Taylor finished his modifications to Candy, and gave it a few experimental swings.

"Alright." He said suddenly, startling the others from their own thoughts. "Now I'm ready for anything." He said determinedly, gazing into the ominous woods before them with his heart fluttering nervously.

"Let me know if you need someone to hold your hand." Sean said quietly, winking at Taylor before striding forward. His steps barely faltering, as he crossed into the dense trees.

"Here's hoping we don't get eaten, possessed or maimed." Zahra droned, her hands in her pockets as she walked forward unhurriedly.

"So," Raj said, drawing in a deep breath as he took a step forward and half turned back to Taylor. "You coming, or what?" He asked, heading into the woods after the others.

Taylor found himself suddenly alone, a chill creeping down his spine as he stared into the dark trees after his friends. A crow cawed, perched in the branches of a nearby pine tree. The bird watched Taylor with one glossy black eye as he took a deep breath, before finally stepping into the woods. He trailed behind Raj, the bright beam of his flashlight illuminating the path ahead. "Well, at least we can see where we're going..." He huffed lowly, glancing around the darkness outside of the beam.

"Well, this place is as creepy as ever little dudes." Raj sniffed, narrowing his eyes as he looked around suspiciously, as if expecting Mr. Red to leap our at them at any moment.

"I don't know..." Taylor said, trying to avoid the others curious gazed. "It kind of feels like... home." He said quietly, thinking that his own home felt similarly empty and void of life. As they paused to get their bearings, a cool breeze brushed past, carrying a faint but familiar whistling sound that near froze Taylors heart. He turned sharply, looking into the distance as his breath came in startled, shallow gasps.

"Taylor?" Raj cried, his eyes wide as Taylor began to move away dazedly, drawn by the familiar trilling. "Where are you going?"

"You don't hear that?" Taylor asked distractedly, half glancing back with a faint frown marring his brow. "It's coming from this way..." He said, leading the group deeper into the woods. The sound drew him to the base if an old, twisted tree, where something hung from the lowest branch. Taylor swallowed thickly, reaching forward with trembling hands to take hold of the familiar, old fashioned whistle.

Raj appeared at his side a moment later, as Taylor stared down at the whistle vacantly, its tarnished surface gleaming in the moonlight. "Is that..?" He asked in a stuttered whisper, his gaze rising to Taylors vacant expression.

"I thought it was lost." Taylor murmured softly, turning the old whistle over in his fingers absently. He clutched his hand around it tightly, gasping a deep breath as he felt his eyes sting, averting his eyes as Zahra and Sean caught up to him and Raj.

"Whoa," Sean choked, his eyes wide as he looked up at Taylor in disbelief. "Where'd that come from?" He asked curiously, as Taylor blinked and tried to get a handle on his emotions.

"Weird." Zahra said flatly, looking unimpressed by the whistle or its sudden appearance. Taylor glanced at them both, before meeting Raj's heavy gaze, clearing his throat as he looked away again.

"It was... I gave it to them for their birthday." Taylor said, his voice trembling slightly from the memories and emotions which tried to overwhelm them. "If they ever got into trouble, then all they had to do was blow it, and..." Taylor trailed off, his voice cracking with the heavy burden weighing on his heart. "And..." He finally stopped shirt, tears welling in his eyes as he almost lost himself to his grief.

Luckily however, Raj interrupted by clearing his throat loudly, giving Taylor a brief moment to recompose himself. "You hear that?" The large boy demanded suddenly, gazing suspiciously around the area with wide eyes.

The group stopped speaking, falling into a tense silence as Taylor closed his eyes and listened carefully. He heard the wind, moving through the trees; as well as something else moving too. "Oh boy... I get the feeling this is gonna suck." He sighed, his hand curling tighter around the handle of his baseball bat. "I think something's coming guys. I don't know what it is... but be ready." He said, before yelping suddenly and jumping in surprise, as Raj grabbed hold of his forearm.

"Don't..." He breathed, his eyes wide as he stared past Taylor. "Move..." He whispered roughly, as Taylors heart lurched in nervous anticipation.

Slowly, hardly daring to breathe, Taylor turned his head following Raj's petrified gaze. Twenty feet down the path, transfixed in the beam of Raj's flashlight, Taylor could see a twisted creature of vines and bone.

"Grrrrrr..." It rumbled threateningly, as Taylor swallowed and tried to slow the rapid thumping of his heart against his ribs.

"That's not a dirt monster." Raj exclaimed in a strained whisper, his disbelief palpable in the air around them.

"That's a skeleton." Zahra choked, her own eyes widening as she stared at the creature. "A walking skeleton." She amended, as the creature began to creep forwards.

"Oh, hell no." Sean growled, shaking his head minutely as he watched the beast approach them slowly. "I did not sign up for this."

"Taylor..." Raj stammered, his grip tight on Taylors forearm still, as he held the flashlight as steady on the creature as he was able. "Wh-what do we do, dude?"

Taylor watched as the creature advanced, a gob of sticky, yellow saliva dripping grin its jaws. "You're right, Sean." He muttered, his fingers curling tighter into the bat handle, until his knuckles turned white. "None of you guys signed up for this... You should all get the hell out of here."

"What?" Zahra demanded, scowling over at Taylor in irritated disbelief. "Are you insane? Wait, don't answer that." She grumbled, rolling her eyes at him.

"Grrrrrrrrr..." The creature growled again, crouching low on its forepaws. "Rah!" The beast barked suddenly, lunging forward.

"Run!" Taylor cried, his heart racing with panic, as he wheeled around and bolted into the trees, his friends crashing through branches and undergrowth on either side. As he dodged around a fallen tree, Taylor gasped, spotting another hulking shape loom up in front of him, blocking his path.

"Arrrroooooo!" It howled loudly, snapping its jaws toward Taylor threateningly, as it snarled and dripped more sticky gobs of saliva.

"Aaah!" Taylor cried, making a sharp left turn as the creature howled again. It fell in beside the first creature, their skeletal limbs clicking as they ran. "I am too pretty to die by being a dead doggy chew toy!" He gasped, as the creatures growled and snapped at his heels.

"Taylor!" Raj yelled, meeting Taylors eyes as he glanced over to the larger boy, who's expression was riddled with realisation and horror. "We need to turn around!" He cried, his eyes widening as Taylor raised an uncomprehending brow. "We're heading straight for the ruins!"

"What?!" Taylor choked, stumbling as he looked around their surroundings more closely. "Shit, you're right! Come on-!" He called, attempting to move to the right, only for one of the creatures to surge forward, forcing him back onto the path. "Oh my god..." He panted, glancing at the creature as it fell back with a faint snarl. "I think they're herding us! They want us to go to the ruins!" He cried in realisation.

"And they don't want us to find Diego!" Raj assumed, scowling as he ran alongside Taylor, his flashlight illuminating the woods around them ominously as they ran.

While still running, Taylor quickly glanced around. One creature trailed behind them, driving them forward; while the other stuck close to their right. "Alright, guys..." He huffed, willing himself to feel the determination he tried to inject into his tone of voice for his friends. "On my signal, we'll go right! They obviously don't want us to go that way..." He called.

"... So, that's where we need to go!" Raj concluded, as Taylor glanced around his friends to receive confirming nods from each of them.

"Ready..." He huffed, counting to three in his head. "Now!" He cried, streling himself and making a sudden, hard turn to the right, dodging past the mossy creature.

"Rah!" The beast yelped, skidding to an unsteady halt, as it jerked it's head up in surprise. It snapped at Taylor, but missed his leg by mere inches.

Covering his face, Taylor crashed through a thick wall of bushes with his friends, and found themselves in a quiet, moonlit clearing. Taylor doubled over, panting heavily, as his friends skidded to a halt beside him. "Hey man, we've gotta keep moving." Sean urged, his hand settling on Taylors shoulder. "Those freaky skeleton things are right behind us!"

"We need to find Diego, fast." Raj panted, wiping his brow to clear away the loose strands of hair plastered to his face by sweat. "What if those things are after him too?" 

"Yeah, about that..." Zahra scoffed, her eyes wide as she stared at something across the other side of the clearing. Taylor forced himself upright, following her gaze to see another of the skeletal creatures, crouching over a still figure, lying in the dirt.

"Oh my god..." He choked, his heart swelling abruptly, choking him as his throat constricted with fear and concern. "Diego?!" He cried,shaking his head in disbelief as his best friend failed to respond.

"Hey!" Raj yelled, glaring at the creature threateningly. "Get away from him!" He demanded, brandishing his flashlight as if about to use it as a weapon.

The creature released Diego's leg, raising its head to snarl at taylor and his friends. He felt the fear racing throughout his body begin to converge, crackling like a flame just catching to a log. Answering growls erupted from all around them, and suddenly the woods became full of burning amber eyes and glinting teeth. Taylors fist curled tighter around Candy, the barbed wire glittering wickedly in the moonlight; as his fear slowly turned to fury and his expression hardened, as he gazed over at his best friends prone form.

"Get ready..." He said lowly, scowling around the gathered creatures. "I am not letting them take Diego." He growled, his feet twisting in the earth slightly as he prepared himself for the fight he knew was coming.

"This is not the way I thought today was going to go..." Sean huffed, running a hand over the back of his neck briefly before flashing Taylor a wide grin. He cracked his knuckles and bounced on the balls of his feet excitedly, a light shrug lifting his shoulders briefly. "But hey, beats homework."

"Heh, I guess so." Taylor snorted, surprised out of his awful mood briefly by Sean's eagerness to crack some creature skulls. He turned as he caught movement from his other side, to see Zahra stoop down and pull a long knife out of her boot.

"What the-" Raj cried, blinking wide eyes over at Zahra and shaking his head, as she raised a brow at them all. "Where'd that come from, dudette?!" 

"Given that knives at school are an expulsion level offense," Zahra said slowly, throwing a conspiratorial wink to the group. "Let's just say 'the hardware store'." She said, twirling the knife expertly across her palm.

"Glad you came prepared..." Taylor huffed, grinning at the now armed girl with a curious expression. "I feel so weird right now, like... I wanna be turned on by this whole rebel slash prepared zombie slayer thing, but... Your boobs are just such a turn off, Skrillex."

"Skrillex?" Zahra choked, narrowing her eyes at him suspiciously. "What the hell is that supposed to be? Some new, lame ass code name for this pile of horse shit, rescue mission?" She demanded, as Taylors cheeks flushed with warmth.

"No, just... a nickname." He said awkwardly, coughing to clear his throat. "Ahem, anyway... Why is that what bothers you? Not me, complaining about your girlie bits?" He asked curiously.

"Taylor, please." Zahra scoffed, rolling her eyes as she twirled her knife until the handle was back in bed palm. "If you ever did anything but complain about a girls bits, I'd think one of these mutts had probably possessed you..." She snorted, as Taylor snickered. 

Raj's knuckles turned white, as he shifted his grip on his flashlight. "I'm ready, dude." He said, preparing to swing his torch like a bat.

Taylor looked around his friends, each ready to fight beside him, and he felt his nerves settle into determination once more. "Well then..." He said, gripping Candy tightly. "Let's do this." He said, drawing in a deep breath as he swung his weapon up over his shoulder and scowled at the creature hovering over his best friend. "Witness me!" He yelled loudly, and at the sound of his voice, the strange plant and bone creatures sprang into action, closing in from all sides.

"Arooooo!" They howled, as one charged straight towards Taylor, snarling and snapping it's large discoloured fangs.

"Come and get it." Taylor scoffed, widening his stance as he lined up his aim with Candy and smashed it forward with expert timing. With a loud crunch, Candy caved in the creature's ribcage.

"Shreeee!" The creature whined, yelping and flailing as it fell to the ground, before its fiery gaze turned dark and it finally fell still.

"Who else wants some?!" Taylor demanded in a fierce roar, as another beast lowered it's head and snarled at him. It raced forward, rearing up in front of him, its jaws stretching open for a bite. Taylor narrowed his eyes, and bashed Candy into the creatures wide maw, drawing a sickening satisfaction from the bone and vine which exploded in all directions.

The creature yelped, falling backwards as the fire in its hollow eye sockets went out. "Yeah!" Taylor huffed, grinning as he raised Candy over his shoulder again. "That'll teach you not to mess with the great, wonder Tay- Oof!" He gasped, as another creature hurtled across the clearing from behind him, slamming into his side and knocking him to the ground with a vicious snarl. It's powerful jaws snapped and slobbered just inches from his face, as he strained to push it away.

"Little help here?!" He cried, as Sean lowered a motionless bone creature to the ground, and turned towards him. 

"Hey, Twiggy!" He yelled, drawing the beasts attention. "Here comes the pain train!" He called, as the creature turned towards him too slow, the sports star grabbing it by the spine. It yelped in surprise, as Sean lifted it overhead, and slammed it against a tree. Dry bones shattered as Taylor watched in awe, and the creature fell to the ground in a twitching heap. "Woo! Three points!" Sean cheered, as he offered Taylor a hand and pulled him easily to his feet. "You good?" He asked, his eyes sweeping over Taylor briefly in concern.

"Better now, Captain America." Taylor huffed, winking as Sean chuckled and rolled his eyes, shaking his head fondly. "Seriously though, dude... I'm suddnly much more appreciative of how gently you put me down earlier..." 

"Shut up, Taylor." Sean laughed, shoving him playfully toward the other side of the clearing as he tipped his head back to where Zahra and Raj were keeping the other creatures at bay. "We got the monsters covered, see if you can get to Diego!" He said, turning away to go help Zahra and Raj.

Taylor swallowed and nodded, gripping Candy tightly as he sprint over to where Diego laid unconscious. A single creature advanced on him, leafy hackles rising as Taylor narrowed his eyes and stepped between it and its prey. "Hey!" He growled, scowling as he hefted Candy over his shoulder. "Get your ugly ass the hell away from my best friend!" He demanded lowly, as the creature growled threateningly. 

Vines snaked up from the creatures back, whipping past Taylor to wrap around Diego's leg. It began to back up, dragging Diego towards the trees. "Oh no, you don't!" Taylor roared, dropping Candy and grabbing Diego's wrists, digging in his heels as he and the creature fought a grim rug of war over Diego's limp body.

"Hold still." Zahra said dryly, startling a surprised and undignified sound from Taylor which he would vehemently deny making later. She snickered as she stepped forward, her knife flashing silver as it sliced into the thick vines.

"Thanks!" Taylor huffed, recovering himself as he flashed her a begrudging grin. "Almost there..." He groaned, gritting his teeth as the creature began to tug against him more urgently.

Zahra ignored him, holding onto the last vine as she sliced Diego free. The creature growled, its head rising in surprise, as Zahra sciwled at it. "Rrrrrrrrr!" She growled back, as the creature trying to pull away as Zahra's knife ripped into it repeatedly. Soon, there was nothing but a pile of shredded vines and bone, which Zahra stood over proudly.

"... Damn, Zahra." Taylor huffed, as he knelt on the floor and cradled Diego's head in his lap. "Again with those confusing feelings you're giving me!"

"Shut up, idiot." She snorted, rolling her eyes as she examined her pile of remains thoughtfully. "I guess I may still have some anger issues to work out." She hummed, her eyes widening as she stared at the remains.

Taylor looked down as the disembodied skull at his feet began to twitch, vines writhing toward the other parts of its body, trying to pull itself back together. He scowled as the creature began to emit a gut churning, crunching sound, setting Diego down carefully and getting to his feet, as he took up his modified bat. "Oh, hell no." He growled, hefting Candy over his shoulder and swinging it forward as hard as he could. The blow connected with the snapping skull, shattering it into a thousand pieces. "Regenerate that!" He huffed, snickering as he resettled Candy carefully upon his shoulder.

Nearby, Raj swung his flashlight at the last creature standing, hitting it square in the jaw as he glared at it hatefully. The creature went down, but despite that, Raj continued to wail on it viciously. "I'm sick..." Raj growled, slamming his flashlight into the creatures fractured skull. "Of these freaking..." He grunted, as another hit smashed through the creatures ribcage. "Woods!" He cried, just as Taylor strolled over to him, peering down at the creature as it gave a final twitch before it fell limp. Raj put his hands on his knees, breathing heavily. "That's right... You stay down." The large bly muttered, his eyes locked onto the broken creature in uncontained disgust.

The clearing turned still, and quiet around them; seeming as though, for now at least, nothing else wished to kill them. "We're... okay?" Taylor asked, his eyes widening as he took in the damage they'd inflicted together.

"Don't know if I'd go that far..." Sean said, running a hand over his hair distractedly as he sighed. "I mean, we just got attacked by zombie plant skeletons."

Zahra gave  a pile of bones bt her feet a few more stomps for good measure, before looking up with a content sigh. "I'm good." She said flatly, a faint smirk curling her lips.

"I'm fine, dudes." Raj huffed, his eyes slipping past Taylor, as he tipped his head towards the prone body they'd rescued. "It's him I'm worried about."

"Diego..." Taylor muttered, dropping Candy without a thought as he hurried back to his friends side. He dropped to his knees, gently brushing leaves and dirt from Diego's face. "He's breathing!" He called, his relief palpable, though he worried his lip and looked over his best friend nervously. "But... Shit, he looks terrible." He whispered, his eyes stinging with fearful tears. "Diego? Diego, buddy... Assbutt! You gotta wake up, okay?!" He called, his gentle tone rising to a near hysteric cry as his panic slowly escaped his containment.

At the sound of Taylors increasingly worried voice, Diego's eyelids twitched, then began to slowly flutter open. "Diego!" Taylor cried, his eyes welling with tears of relief as his friend looked up at him dazedly. "Oh my god, dude, you scared the shit outta me! I'm gonna kick your ass so bad for this later..." He sniffed, his hand clutching at Diego's tightly. "Diego... What happened to you? What the hell are you doing out here, idiot? Did those things hurt you?" He babbled, the words tumbling from his mouth without thought or permission.

Diego's gaze remained distant, his eyes seeming to look past Taylor, as he opened his mouth and mumbled softly. "Things... skeletons." He said quietly, shaking his head weakly. "Chased me... couldn't escape..."

"It's okay now." Taylor sniffed, his fingers brushing Diego's jaw gently as he held him close, swallowing thickly as his friend struggled to explain. "It's okay. We took care of them... You're safe now." He promised, sniffing in an attempt to hold back his emotions. "It's all gonna be okay... You can come and stay at mine for awhile, and we can have a Marvel fest, skip school and-"

Taylors nervous babbling came to an abrupt halt, as Diego grabbed the front of his top and pulled him closer. His hazel eyes, suddenly clear, bore straight into Taylors own deep blue gaze. "Why?" He demanded in a harsh whisper, his voice breaking in distress, as Taylor blinked his widened eyes at him. "Why did you come, Taylor?"

"What?!" Taylor choked, jerking back from Diego as he shook his head in disbelief. "Dude, I had to! We had to! I... We couldn't just leave you out here!" He cried, his heart clenching at the broken gaze which his best friend beheld him with.

"You shouldn't have come." Diego whispered hoarsely, pulling at Taylors shirt to tug him closer again, his lips pressed almost to his ear as he continued in a terrified hiss. "Now... he can leave." He choked, as his hand fell from Taylors top.

Taylor fell back, scrambling away from his best friend as his panic consumed him. "No..." He gasped, his eyes glazing over, as he was transportd through tine in his memories; to an abandoned building in the middle of the woods, with a strange barrier at its entrance.

"Taylor?!" Raj cried, unnervd by his reaction, glancing at Diego as he stared blankly into the sky. "Dude, what is it? What did he say?"

Taylor shook his head, unable to speak as he watched Diego's eyes flutter closed again. With a final sigh, he fell still once more, and Taylor felt his heart fall still with him.

Chapter Text

5.

What's Coming To You: Part One.

Taylor stared down the school corridor vacantly, lost within his own head, his body functioning by recognition of habit alone. Zahra walked beside him, his friends having decided after his descent into shock that he should not be left alone if avoidable. If he'd had the thought process spare, Taylor would have found this endearing; his former friends coming together once again, to support and help one another.

"So begins yet another day, at the soul-sucking hellscape which is, Westchester High." Zahra muttered, scowling around the few other students as she guided Taylor toward their lockers. She hissed, upon noticing Estela leaning against the wall to the side of their lockers, watching them intently as they walked over slowly.

"Zahra the freak." She said thoughtfully but coldly, as Taylor blinked. He felt the vague stirring of unease beneath the blanket of his apathy, sensing he should prevent the encounter, but unable to make himself break through the heavy surface of his mental cocoon. "And the idiot."

"Please, stop." Zahra sighed heavily, ignoring Estela herself in favour of unlocking her locker. "Every time you use that extremely clever nickname, it just gets more hurtful."

"I'm merely stating fact." Estela said, shrugging her shoulder dismissively. Taylor felt the first very real prickles of emotion pierce his heart, anxiety about the current exchange flickering within his deep blue eyes, as he managed to twitch his gaze between Zahra and Estela. "I don't do humour, I leave that to Craig." 

"Wow, then you really are scraping the barrel." Zahra sniffed, shaking her head as Estela watched her intently. "And just when I finally think I've got you figured out, you go and dazzle me with new depths of cunning."

Estela's brow furrowed, allowing Zahra a moment to herself to sort through her things, while Taylor merely watched them both worriedly, noticing that his heart had picked up its pace in nervous anticipation. "Okay, did you, like... actually want something, or was this just meant to be another of your random mock and walks..?" Zahra demanded, turning to Estela with a glare.

"... I just wanted to check up on you." Estela finally replied, looking away down the hall, as students began to trickle into the school. "Heard you tried to visit Diego in the hospital." She said, her dark eyes slipping past Zahra to Taylor, as he flinched and made a distinct sound of distress.

"This is a true fact." Zahra drawled, rolling her eyes after checking on Taylor, who was desperately trying to fall back into his blanket of apathy; but finding it difficult, his awareness stirred by Estela's comment.

"Hmm." Estela hummed, her gaze fixed on Taylor as he fidgeted in discomfort. "Are you just obsessed with him, or genuinely concerned?"

"What the fuck kinda question is that, Ice Queen?" Taylor snarled, his mental barrier crumbling as his fury overwhelmed him. His shoulders hunched defensively as Estela's lips twitched, her dark eyes glittering knowingly. "Since when do you give a shit about Diego, huh? Other than to torment him with Michelle and Craig? What the hell makes you think you have any right to even ask about hi-"

"Whoa, Taylor, chill dude." Zahra said loudly, stepping between him and Estela, blocking her from his sight. "Okay, not that it's any of your business..." She said, frowning as she glared at Estela fiercely. "Diego's our friend. We look out for our own." She said, cocking her head as she examined Estela's blank expression, the girls dark gaze still locked past Zahra and onto Taylor. "I guess you're not familiar with the concept, but friends sometimes care what happens to each other."

"You're sarcasm's unnecessary." Estela sighed, barely glancing at Zahra before narrowing her eyes back at Taylor, as he squirmed and tried to protect his vulnerable nerves.

"I disagree." Zahra replied glibly, winking at Estela with heavy exaggeration. Taylor felt his emotions jumble together, his heart racing at the exchange as his fear for Diego attempted to consume him again.

"I wonder," Estela said slowly, raising a brow as she sneeringly looked over Taylor. "If you're such good friends and you were all so concerned, then why exactly was he out in the woods; alone?"

"And what the hell would you care anyway?" Taylor demanded irately before he could think, scowling as Zahra held him back from the scarred girl. "You and your bosom buddies have done nothing but torment him for the past-"

"I've done nothing of the sort, and you'd do well to remember just who it is tends to forewarn you, when he's at the head of their play list for the day." Estela said, the first flare of anger flashing in her dark eyes. 

"Then why the hell do you bother hanging around with them anyway?!" Taylor demanded, straining against Zahra's hand on his shoulder.

"I have my reasons." Estela said lightly, averting her eyes a moment as her hand balled into a fist. She swallowed heavily, seeming to fight with herself for a moment, however when her gaze returned to Taylors, it was with her familiar, emotionless eyes. "You want to know what I think?" She asked lowly, as Taylor bit his lip and felt himself drawn into her dark gaze.

"There is not enough 'no' in the world." Zahra sighed, scowling at Estela in irritation, while flashing a concerned glance at Taylor.

"I think Diego was lured out there for a reason." Estela said quietly, her eyes flashing with a knowledge which froze Taylors heart in his chest. "I believe someone used him as bait, trying to attract something they wanted even more..." She said, as Taylor swallowed thickly and took a step back. "Now, just what do you think that something... or someone could be..?"

"Not very good bait," Zahra said stiffly, her posture tensing as Taylor began to come apart beside her, his nerves and fear palpable in the air around them. "He was unconscious when we found him, doesn't seem like the best of lures... I think anyone trying to attract anything would need him coherent enough to, you know, attract something."

"You're being deliberately dense." Estela said, frowning at Zahra before looking back at Taylor intently. "Just knowing where he was, would have been enough of a lure. You don't need your bait to be coherent, to send a text message."

Taylors blood turned to ice in his veins, and he stumbled back, leaning against his locker as he recalled the night Diego had text them all from the woods, and the vicious dirt monster which had tried to kill him shortly after. "What the hell is wrong with you?" Zahra demanded, directing a hateful snarl toward Estela. "Are you trying to give him a goddamn heart attack?!"

"No. I'm trying to make him understand." Estela said shortly, finally turning back to Zahra with her brows furrowing. "But clearly you're too dense to understand that, so I'll leave you to figure it out for yourselves."

"Wait." Taylor breathed, his hands clenching tightly as he tried to get a grip on the hysteria in his heart. He looked over at Estela, as she pushed off the wall, but waited for him to continue. "How..? How do you-"

"We all have secrets." Estela said, cutting him off as she moved to brush past him, shrugging her shoulders lightly to show her disinterest. "For what it's worth, I hope he doesn't die... He's a good guy."

Taylor choked, his heart clamouring in his chest as he thought of losing his best friend permanently. "Like you would know about anyone being anything but assholes." Zahra scoffed as she passed, turning back to her locker with a derisive snort. Taylor had no time to warn his friend as Estela spun suddenly, grabbing Zahra by the back of the neck and slamming her head into her locker. "Ow!" She yelled, as Taylor gasped and hurried to try and pry the girls fingers from where they dug into Zahra's skin.

"I've been polite, and I've been helpful." Estela murmured lowly, her eyes narrowed as she leaned close to Zahra's ear. "It would serve you well to learn some basic fucking manners, and stop trying my patience; because I have little of it. Don't forget loser, you're not the only one with a penchant for pretty hidden knives."

Taylors eyes widened as Estela suddenly released Zahra, meeting his eyes briefly as she stepped back. He shook himself from his temporary shock, looking at Zahra as she stepped back from her locker, noticeably dazed and clutching her forehead.

"Estela..." She muttered, and Taylor shivered as her eyes flashed with fury and hatred. "You are so dead." She snarled, twisting in Taylors hold to scowl at the other girl fiercely.

"Oh? What are you going to do?" Estela asked, seeming genuinely interested in Zahra's response. "Make fun of me some more?"

Zahra clenched her fists and began moving toward Estela, only for Taylor to yank her backward into his arms, as Estela's already dark eyes seemed to dance with darkness. "Go on." She whispered, her voice almost excited as she gazed at Zahra intently. "Try something."

"Y-you think I'm afraid of y-" Zahra vegan to growl, only for Estela to poke her in the chest; hard.

"Estela!" A voice called from down the hall, the click of hurried footsteps tearing them all from the ominous atmosphere which had formed around them. Estela backed away, scowling as her hands balled into fists, glaring down the hall at the approaching figure. "Estela... What do you think you're doing?" Mrs. Montoya demanded, barely glancing at Taylor and Zahra before refocusing on her daughter.

Estela sneered, her eyes glittering with malice as she looked over at her mother briefly, before looking at Taylor. "Giving a friend some advice." She said finally, before turning away and beginning to move down the hall. 

"Estela! Young lady, I am not done with you." Mrs. Montoya insisted, following after Estela and grabbing her wrist as she swept past her, dragging her down the hall with her. "I think we should continue this in my office."

"Why, so you can lie to me without witnesses?" Estela snarled viciously, as Taylor and Zahra watched in stunned silence, the usually stoic girl showing more emotion in three minutes than she had in as many years. "Or just so you can hide me away? Your own dirty little secr-?" Estela's harsh words ended abruptly, as Mrs. Montoya slammed her office door closed behind them.

Taylor swallowed heavily, as Zahra fumed beside him, clutching her head as her brow began to turn feverish. "Taylor, you might wanna let go of me." She snapped, glancing at him with a frown. "Right now." She insisted, when Taylor hesitated. As he reluctantly released her, she stepped away and clapped both hands to her head. "Shit... Hot, so fucking hot..." She muttered, gritting her teeth as she tried to contain her fury.

"Zahra..." Taylor called gently, hoping to soothe his obviously irate friend. "Zahra, it's okay, c'mon; let's ditch and try go see Diego aga-"

"It's too fucking big, Taylor!" Zahra snapped, shaking her head as she growled under her breath. "I can't hold it!" She cried, her furious gaze settling onto the row of lockers. "Aaaarrgggghh!" She roared, as her locker door slammed open as if thrown by some invisible force, hitting Taylor square in the face.

"Hey!" He yelped, his wyes widening as he quickly backed away, his hand rising to his stinging nose. "What the hell?!" He gasped, drawing his hand back to see his fingers were smeared with blood, before looking up at Zahra with a scowl. "Did you just bust my nose..? Zahra! How the hell am I supposed to flirt with guys with a busted nose?!"

"Wow, well I am super glad that your priorities are back in order." Zahra said, her eyes wide as she stared at her locker door. "But can we get back to your lacking love life later? You know, some time after we deal with the fact I just blew my goddamn locker door near off its hinges?!" She demanded, panting for breath as she began to pace in agitation.

"Oh sure, make this all about you." Taylor snorted, immediately regretting the action when his nose stung. "I mean, you having freaky ass abilities I can deal with; my nose looking like a damn watermelon while I'm trying to pick up guys, I cannot!" 

"Taylor!" Zahra fumed, scowling at him as he glared back at her accusingly. "What the hell was that? I didn't even touch my locker!" She said, staring down at her hands in disbelief.

"I hate you so much right now." Taylor muttered petulantly, tentatively touching his nose. Oh god, please don't let anybody see me like this... He thought self consciously, trying hard to hide his nose from anyone who might pass by.

"Oh for gods sake, your damn nose is fine! There's a tiny cut, even less bruising and no swelling. Its barely even bleeding anymore." Zahra said scathingly, narrowing her eyes as she glanced at him. "You can just make up some badass lie about doing something cool... like the mind blowing shit, I do not know how I just did!"

"Honestly, Hot Topic, kinda selfish right now..." Taylor sniffed, prodding gently at his nose again. "But fine, whatever. What did you feel when it happened..?"

"What kinda stupid ass question is that?" Zahra scoffed, clenching her hands into fists. "I was pissed the fuck off!"

"Well, yeah... I meant besides that." Taylor huffed, rolling his eyes at her as he carefully stepped away from anything which might spontaneously move and potentially smack him in the face. "Like, was there anything else besides your amazing fury?"

"Well... I mean..." Zahra muttered, staring at her hands a moment longer, before looking up at Taylor as her mouth curled into a wide smirk. "I felt awesome..."

"Great." Taylor said, rolling his eyes again. "Can we get on with this pain in the ass of a day, so we can get outta here and try see Diego again, please? If you're done being all, you know, ahem..." Ge coughed. Gesturing towards Zahra vaguely. "Magic, and shit."

"Why are you not freaked out by this?" Zahra demanded, narrowing her eyes at Taylor as he turned and began walking down the hall, covering his nose by pretending to scratch it.

"Uh, probably because we fought off a buncha living skeletons last night to find our friend, unconscious in the woods..." Taylor huffed, glancing over at Zahra as she began power walking along side him. "Which you know, kinda lame 'cause it would have been totally badass to have you able to help us with it."

"Oh, I'm sorry. Next time we're gonna go out late night monster hunting, I'll make sure I go get Estela to piss me off before hand." Zahra snarked, still grinning as she glanced at her hands repeatedly.

"Oh stop it, anyone would think you were happy." Taylor snorted, wincing again when his nose stung. "Its embarrassing."

"Right... Gotta get my image back on track." Zahra said, nodding as she rearranged her face into a scowl, though her eyes were amused when she glanced at Taylor sideways. "Think fast, dork!" She said, shoving him into the lockers with a small laugh.

"Oof!" Taylor huffed, hiding his amusement beneath a scowl. "You know what, you're just an ass. I dunno why I hang around with you." 

"'Cause I'm an awesome human being." Zahra said flippantly, as they rounded the corner and began to walk in separate directions. "And I let you."

"You keep telling yourself that!" Taylor called, turning away to smile gently. He heard Zahra's faint laughter echo back to him, and he shook his head fondly. His amusement faded however as he found himself alone, facing an entire day of school before he could get back to the hospital to try and see his unresponsive best friend. "Man, it's gonna be a long day..." He sighed, as he strolled into his first class of the day and tried to focus on anything but Diego, and how soon he might be able to get back to him.

It was in the afternoon, that the school held an emergency assembly to finally address the rumours about Diego. Taylor grimaced as he flumped himself into a seat, not even noticing who was beside him as he looked up at the stage to see Rebecca's mother, Mayor McKenzie; speaking from behind a lectern. "And," she said, looking around the room as she continued what Taylor assumed was a very long winded speech to a batch of newly legal voters. "I want to assure everyone, that the doctors and staff at Westchester General, are watching over Mr. Soto. But, just as important as his well being, is all of yours."

Taylor snorted, shaking his head in disgust at what he was sure the Mayor felt was a touching speech. Maybe if she happened to care about her own damn daughter half as much as this chance to earn more votes, I might give a damn about what she was spewing. He thought, his hands curling into fists as he recalled Rebecca's confession from the previous evening.

"So, I want all of ya to know that whatever ya feeling right now, it is normal and it is okay." The Mayor continued, looking around the hall earnestly.

Taylor frowned at the woman, remembering how even Jake had expressed exasperation with his parents for their commentary on his life. Funny how a person can be so understanding about anyone and anything but themselves and their own lives... He thought, shaking his head slowly.

In a row somewhere behind him, Taylor heard Craig begin to snicker. "What if I feel bored and hungry?" He asked, as Taylors hands curled into fists, a sudden flare of irritation sweeping through him.

"Then it is normal and okay." Estela replied blandly, as Taylor bit the inside of his cheek and tried his best to ignore them. Despite his efforts however, all he could think of was his best friends broken murmurs the night before.

You shouldn't have come... He shivered at the whispered memory of Diego's last words before returning to the realm of the unconscious, his blood turning cold as his heart thudded loudly. Now he can leave! Taylor barely contained a gasp, shivering as he thought of his friend. "Diego..." He sighed, rubbing his tired eyes. When he opened them again, he noticed words carved into the arm of his chair. "...'Diego was here'..?" He murmured, his brows rising in surprise.

Taylors eyes widened, as a memory shook itself loose. He blinked, thinking back to another assembly, about a year ago. He recalled Diego sat in his current seat, fiddling with his car keys as the two of them talked in hushed tones. "Diego, have you been thinking about it again..?" Taylor had asked worriedly, looking his friend over. "About what happened, back when we were kids?"

"What?" Diego had scoffed, noticeably avoiding Taylors eyes as his fiddling increased. "No." He said, pausing a long moment, before glancing at Taylor guiltily. "I mean, I think about it sometimes. Not like, all the time or anything! But..." He trailed off, his fingers stilling as he frowned and finally looked at Taylor properly. "Why, have you?"

Taylor recalled how his friend had lifted a single key to the arm of his chair, its gold teeth digging into the red paint. I guess that was the last time we really talked about... it. He thought, biting his lip as he gently traced his fingers over the carved letters of his friends name. He tried to push the memory aside, but it pressed back against his efforts determinedly, and soon; Taylor closed his eyes and found himself tumbling through his own mind, lost to the memory's grasp.

Taylor looked around at the mostly empty seats in the hall, attending an optional assembly on community service, to find his best friend and avoid his last class of the day; the headache inducing math. "Urgh, thanksgiving break cannot come soon enough." He sighed, as he flopped into a seat beside Diego, his best friend snorting at him in amusement.

"Dude, you hate thanksgiving." Diego said, glancing at him sideways with a small smirk. "Hell, you hate most holidays. You're like one of the only people I know who prefers to come to school, than have time off."

"Shut up, assbutt, that is a cold and callous lie. I demand you take it back right now, else I won't invite you over and let you watch you're favourite god-awful show..." Taylor insisted, feigning a scowl as Diego flushed and jabbed an accusatory finger at him.

"Hey, Sunset Beach is a classic drama!" He protested, his fierce whisper ringing with righteous indignation. "Just 'cause a total assbutt like you can't appreciate-"

"I can appreciate many things, that show is not one of them." Taylor huffed, smirking as Diego scowled and muttered to himself, flipping his keys around his finger. "But... I still let you watch it."

"Bitch." Diego pouted, determinedly refusing to meet Taylors amused gaze as he stared at the twirling keys in his hand.

"Jerk." Taylor quipped easily, finally drawing a huff of laughter from his friend. Diego reluctantly looked up at him, shaking his head fondly as they bumped their fists together.

"What're you doing here anyway, oh tasteless one?" Diego asked, frowning suddenly in realisation. "You don't care about-"

"I am hurt and offended by your heartless assumption, dude." Taylor interrupted, pressing a hand over his heart as if truly upset by his friend. "... Also, I heard you were gonna be in here."

"Tch. Creeper." Diego snorted, shaking his head as he faced forward again. "Let me guess, you had math." He said knowingly, his lips curving into a smirk.

"And, I had math." Taylor admitted, laughing when Diego rolled his eyes and sighed. "Look, its not my fault, okay? The numbers just hate me! And the whole adding letters thing? Cruel and unusual punishment, dude."

"You're such an idiot." Diego huffed, laughing quietly as he turned towards Taylor with a fond grin. "But I will just have to bear the burden of your idiocy, and carry your lame ass through adulthood; when you fail to get a job, because you kept skipping math."

"Pfft, I have enough saved up that I probably won't need to get a job anyway." Taylor huffed, lowering his gaze as he chuckled quietly. "Hell, I probably won't need to buy a house either. I expect mom and dad will gimme theirs, in exchange for never having to hear from me again."

"Dude," Diego began, his face falling at the rare reference to Taylors absentee parents. Taylor cleared his throat, looking away down the aisle, frustration flickering in his eyes at his unexpected slip.

"So, what about you?" He asked suddenly, diverting his friends sympathy before it could manifest. "Why are you here?" He asked, as Diego grimaced at his weak attempt to distract him.

"Papa said I should come," he admitted, rolling his eyes as he jingled his keys again. "Said community service looks good on college applications."

Taylor frowned, looking over at Diego's uncomfortably stiff posture.  "Well, yeah... But so does being such a total know it all." He said, his brow furrowing deeper, as his friend began to play with his keys more insistently; clearly bothered by something, but not ready to bring it up. He drew in a deep breath, glancing around the hall briefly as he tried to sort through his emotions, before looking back at his friend with a gentle smile. "So... how are classes going anyway?"

"Good. Pretty good." Diego said quickly, biting his lip before looking over at Taylor guiltily. "I uh, I think I actually flunked a history test..."

Taylor snorted, shaking his head sat his friend as he grinned. "Dude, you would have to deliberately answer everything wrong to flunk anything." He said, sobering slightly when Diego flushed and averted his gaze. "Wait, you're serious?" He choked, as Diego nodded absently. "What the hell, dude? How come? You didn't eat your text book this time..?"

Diego rolled his eyes, a tiny grin manifesting on his lips briefly at Taylors incredulous disbelief. "No, I did." He assured, though his amusement slowly faded to a tired frown. "I just... think I didn't get enough sleep last night? I haven't been sleeping great in general..." He admitted, and Taylors brow furrowed as his concern for his friend amplified, noticing the faint dark rings beneath Diego's eyes. "But, ha, you know... who does, right?"

Taylor watched his best friend fidget a moment longer, before lowering his eyes and sighing. "Yeah... totally..." He said, looking back at Diego as he flipped his car keys in his hand again. He raised one to the arm of his chair and began to scratch at the paint. "Dude... Is everything, okay..?" He asked gently, frowning as he tried to remember the last time his friend had actually stayed over.

"What, pfft, yeah." Diego scoffed quickly, determinedly avoiding Taylors too perceptive gaze. "I'm good. So good... Just, uh, kinda tired I guess. Today." He babbled quickly, shrugging his shoulder dismissively. "And... lately."

Taylor hesitated, allowing Diego a moment to compose himself. "Well, good thing thanksgiving break is coming up then, huh?" He said, clearing his throat and looking around the near empty hall. "So how 'bout it? You, me, salt and vinegar chips... and that god-awful show of yours."

"Hey, dude, no dissing my show, okay?" Diego pouted, though he broke out in a relieved grin at the change in subject. He frowned at Taylor, suddenly seeming to realise something. "Wait, are your parents still overseas?"

"Yeah, well my aunt left a huge mess when she died, and they're in charge of sorting out her estate among her family over there." Taylor replied, flapping a hand dismissively. "Well look, how 'bout a Supernatural binge then? I've got all the latest seasons..." He offered by way of distraction.

"Oh man, you're killing me here, Taylor." Diego sighed, shaking his head longingly. "You have no idea how much I wanna, but... My family's taking me up to my uncle's cabin, out in the sticks."

"Oh... A cabin in the middle of nowhere, huh?" Taylor asked quietly, his heart sinking as a chill swept through his heart. Sounds disturbingly familiar. But I guess anything is preferable to having their son hang out with the town troublemaker... He thought, swallowing heavily as he glanced away briefly. "Dude, that sounds like awesome fun. I will be so very envious of you; the whole time I sit on my ass watching hot guys take their shirts off..."

"You know, I was actually really looking forward to this trip; so you're an ass for making me wanna bail now." Diego muttered, pouting at Taylor reproachfully as his friend sniggered quietly. "It's nice every now and then, getting away from people and just... be by myself."

Taylor stopped his sniggering, his brow creasing as he looked back at his friend. "What, like you can't be by yourself at mine?" He asked, trying to keep the faint note of panic from his voice. His stomach twisted uneasily, his heart lurching fearfully. What if its not his parents? What if he just doesn't wanna come over..? What if... he blames me too? His thoughts clamoured over themselves, as Diego huffed and rolled his eyes, ignorant of his friends inner struggles. 

"Though I admit, it can get a little weird sometimes." Diego muttered, as Taylor raised a brow dubiously, silently asking for details. "Well, I mean... All those trees and shadows and that." Diego mumbled, unaware of the way Taylors heart sped up, clattering erratically against his ribs. "Sometimes they remind me of..." He trailed off with a cough, barely glancing at Taylor as he hissed quietly and flinched away. "... uh. You know. Stuff."

Taylor stared vacantly across the empty assembly hall, swallowing heavily as he tried to get a grip on himself. "Yeah." He finally agreed roughly, clearing his throat to keep from choking on his growing sense of hysteria. "Stuff."

Diego looked over, holding Taylors gaze for a moment, before his eyes flit away guiltily. Why today? Why couldn't we have just had a normal conversation, like always? He wondered, drawing in a deep breath as he looked down at the arm of the chair, where he realised Diego had been carving his name. Because... It never really goes away. We just pretend we don't know what really happened, what I... caused. And of all of us, he never managed to bury it, the way the rest of us did. He thought in realisation, his gut hollowing as he thought of how his must have been struggling, while also trying to hide it from him. "Diego, have you been thinking about it again..?" Taylor asked worriedly, looking his friend over in concern. "About what happened, back when we were kids?"

"What?" Diego scoffed, noticeably avoiding Taylors eyes as his fiddling increased. "No." He said, pausing a long moment, before glancing at Taylor guiltily. "I mean, I think about it sometimes. Not like, all the time or anything! But..." He trailed off, his fingers stilling as he frowned and finally looked at Taylor properly. "Why, have you?"

"Me?" Taylor choked, his eyes widening as Diego met his gaze urgently. Taylor felt his heart race so fast, he thought it might well have stopped. He tried to swallow away the heavy words clogging his throat, but couldn't shift them as they surged free. "... constantly." He finally rasped, before finally averting his gaze and drawing in a much needed deep breath. "How can I not?" He babbled, running a hand through his hair and tugging at the roots as Diego stared at him in surprise. "It's a part of who I am... or, a part that's missing and-" he gasped, fighting to stop the words flowing from him like a river, barely able to restrain them. And its not like none of us know it was only 'cause of me, that you all had to witness that. You'd have never been there, if I hadn't... If I-

"I know the feeling... It's like someone chopped off your hand-" Diego began, swallowing as Taylor shook his head and tried to return his deepest fears to the dark corner of his mind which ne no longer ventured into. 

"Yeah, exactly!" Taylor cried, turning to Diego with wide, imploring eyes. "And you think your used to it! But then still, five times a day, you look down and you're like 'whoa, when the hell did that happen'?" Taylor rambled, as Diego frowned and tried to follow him. "But I can't... I can't-" 

Diego looked down at his graffiti, his keys continuing to scratch deep marks into the painted wood, letters forming one at a time. "Do you remember..? The... the thing we made up in the woods?" Diego asked, his hands hesitating as he tried to find the words to continue. "... Redfield?"

The breath in Taylors throat caught, his heart lurching as he shook his head slowly, though he wasn't sure if he was actually answering his friend. "S-sort of..." He said evasively, trying not to let his friend sense the lingering darkness and shadows in his heart.

"Let me ask you something." Diego said, his words coming fast and fully formed, like a question he'd been holding in for a long time. "Do you... Do you remember, how we came up with that name?" He finally asked, as Taylor looked down at the carving of his friends name, blood rushing in his ears as he squirmed to avoid the memory which tried to surface in his mind. "'Cause, its really weird, and specific for a bunch of kids, right? Like... did we take it from a movie or something..?" He asked, looking up at Taylor with a glint of something in his eyes. Taylor couldn't decide what the glint was though. Hope, terror, or just desperation.

"Redfield's name..." Taylor said slowly, trying his hardest not to remember the day he'd first walked into the abandoned house in the woods. The day I broke us, the day I failed us, the day I... got our friend killed. I just didn't know it then. It was always... all my fault. He thought, swallowing heavily as he stared absently through his best friend.

"Taylor..?" Diego prompted, snapping Taylor from his haunted memories and guilty thoughts, his brow creasing as he suddenly seemed to notice Taylors shift in attitude. "Hey, are you-"

"I think we made it up, dude." Taylor said quickly, glancing around the hall as he tried to play of his hesitation as an attempt to remember the awful memory which he'd never forgotten. "I uh, I think we just saw it written somewhere..." He muttered, admitting a half truth to cover his lapse.

Diego breathed a sigh of what Taylor hoped was relief, and not disappointment. An unusual silence hung heavily between them, something which they hadn't experienced since they'd lost their other friends years before. God... how can I ever tell him..? Taylor thought, hysteria gnawing at his gut as he worried his nail and glanced at his best friend. "Diego, you know if you ever wanna talk..." He said, reaching for Diego's hand, only for him to jerk it away as if burned, before laughing nervously.

"Dude, c'mon, I don't..." Diego stammered, his brow creasing as his hand balled into a fist. "I don't want you to think I'm some sort of... I'm fine."

Taylor lowered his eyes, trying to keep the heartache he felt from his face, as he recalled Diego's fierce reaction in his mind. "Okay." He said quietly, looking down at his lap as he toyed with his belt. "Sorry."

For a long pause, they said nothing and Taylor felt his panic eat into his confidence. What if I lose him too now? If... he goes away, but comes back distant, like the others..? He worried, telling himself that if Diego needed space he would give it and understand; but knowing in his heart it would devastate him.

Diego fidgeted, his discomfort obvious before he sighed suddenly, his hand reaching for Taylors and interlacing their fingers tightly. "I uh... You know, I think maybe this whole community service thing isn't for us." He said, smiling as Taylor blinked at him in surprise. "I think what we need, is chips and bad tv..." He said, wiggling his brow suggestively.

Taylor stared at Diego in disbelief, his throat constricting tightly from the relief he felt flooding through his heart. He couldn't fight the goofy grin which fought its way to his face, instead winking cockily as he gave a shaky laugh. "... So, you admit its bad tv?" He asked, as Diego snorted and rolled his eyes, as he squeezed Taylors hand tightly. "C'mon, then assbutt... Lets get outta here. What flavour chips are we getting..?" 

"Salt and vinegar, baby." Diego said, grinning as he and Taylor collected their bags and quietly slunk out the back of the assembly hall; leaving behind nothing, but words scratched in the paint.

'Diego was here.'

Taylor blinked, sucking in a deep and shaky breath, as he came back to himself, his fingers unconsciously tracing the words his friend had left behind. I shouldn't have lied... not to Diego. He thought, biting back his grief as Mayor McKenzie wrapped up her speech.

"... and now, we'll turn things over to ya school president, Aleister Rourke, with a very important message on wildlife safety." She concluded, stepping back to wave Aleister up to the podium.

"Psst, Taylor..." Taylor started at the whispered call of his name, frowning as he ran a hand through his hair distractedly and glanced around. "Over here." He turned to spot Raj nearby, sat with Quinn, Zahra and Rebecca; the group all waving him over as Aleister finally took the stage.

"Greetings, Westchester High." Aleister drawled, and Taylor raised a brow, glancing at the pale boys hands to see them twitching at his sides. He huffed, remembering Aleister's confession from his fake interview, his heavy heart lightening briefly at the memory. "I intend to make this quick, so listen closely. The Sheriff's Office has received multiple reports, of bear sightings in town over the past few days. I have been informed to give you all advice on how to not get yourselves killed, should you come across one."

Taylor glanced at the words on th arm of his chair, patting then briefly as he grabbed his things and crept across the auditorium to join the others, trying not to laugh at Aleister's blatant irritation as he slumped into a seat beside his friends. "I don't know, guys... Maybe we ought to actually listen to this. It sounds kinda important." Quinn said, grimacing at the confession.

"Ah, c'mon Quinn..." Rebecca groaned, rolling her eyes as she nudged the redheads arm playfully. "We've heard this speech every year since first grade... Though I admit, Aleister's got an odd way of deliverin' his version. Less laughin', more insultin'. I like it."

"Besides which," Raj said firmly, scowling at Rebecca for her interruption. "We have more important stuff to talk about, doodlejumps." He said, looking around them all meaningfully. "Like, what went down last night."

"Urgh... last night is a blur, man." Taylor sighed, scrubbing his hands over his face. "I barely even remember getting home." He huffed, shaking his head as recalled the previous evening; from fun and flirty at the hardware store, to a frantic fight for Diego's life.

"What did you tell the cops, dude?" Raj asked, his eyes flashing with concern as Taylor shrugged and looked away disinterestedly.

"Just enough." He said vaguely, watching the other students as they either talked over Aleister or listened worriedly to his speech. "They wouldn't have believed the full story anyway." He scoffed, turning back to Raj with an impassive expression.

"I barely believe it dude, and I was there." The large boy sighed, putting his face in his hands tiredly. "I barely slept after I got home. And I had nightmares all night once I did." He admitted, as Taylor glanced away, reluctant to admit he'd slept more peacefully the previous evening than he had in years. "What happened out there was... frickin' scary, doodlejumps!"

"Eh," Taylor huffed, shrugging his shoulders again as his lips curled into a small grin. "We handled it like pros, though." He said, holding out his hand to his friend.

After a pause of stunned silence, Raj snorted and slapped his hand to Taylors, rolling his eyes as he shook his head. "Yeah, maybe you did, dude. I was scared out of my mind." He said, chuckling as he scratched his chin thoughtfully.

"Could've fooled me, man." Taylor said, winking at the large boy. Raj scoffed, but seemed to cheer up somewhat at Taylors comments.

"You're a bad liar, dude." He huffed, effectively wiping the smile from Taylors face as he quickly looked away to cover his guilty flinch. "Well, anyway... We filled these guys in on what happened."

"I still can't believe those plant skeleton things." Zahra said, shaking her head as Taylor flashed her an irritated scowl.

"Oh sure, that's what you can't believe." He scoffed, sniffing as Zahra smirked knowingly at him. "Pfft, you probably just want one as a pet."

"They sound pretty awful..." Quinn said, shivering as she glanced over at Taylor with obvious regret for nor being able to go with them. She opened her mouth to speak further, when Zahra's loud snort cut her off.

"What? No, they were awesome!" She declared, as Taylor winked at Quinn and mouthed an 'I told you so,' to the now giggling redhead. "I mean, aside from trying to rip our faces off."

"So, what about Aleister?" Taylor asked, rolling his eyes as he ignored Zahra's fascination with the creatures which they'd fought the night before.

"Sean text him." Raj said, shrugging a shoulder vaguely as he looked down at the pale boy on the stage, a complex expression forming on his face.

"I still can't believe you guys were actually right." Rebecca sighed, shaking her head as she stared at her lap thoughtfully.

"Hold on, we need to get that on tape." Zahra snorted, missing the way Rebecca flinched at her unintentional jibe.

"I also can't believe you were flirtin' with my brother!" Rebecca sneered, as Taylor felt his eye widen, gesturing to himself questioningly. "Yes, you! Ya... hussy!"

Taylor burst out laughing, finally distracted from his own turbulent feelings by the shock which flooded him. "Oh come on, have you seen the guy?!" Taylor protested, giving up his feigned innocence. "Seriously, it would've been an insult if I hadn't offered myself up gift wrapped." He said, as Rebecca wrinkled her nose in mock disgust.

"Gross, Taylor... That is so not the image I need in my head when I think of my brother..." She complained, shaking her head as if she might be able to dislodge whatever thoughts had taken over her mind. Taylor huffed, smirking as he looked over at her.

"To be fair... There was no gift wrap involved." He stage whispered, laughing when Rebecca scowled over at him. "What can I say? I suck at wrapping. Though, I can manage the odd bow..." He said, winking as the fiery redhead narrowed her eyes and made to swat his shoulder, though he hastily dodged her aim. "Oh, hell no! You're hands are freaky strong." He laughed, snickering as she finally gave up and rolled her eyes.

"I hate ya so much, right now." She sniffed, as Taylor snickered and settled back into his chair properly.

"No, you don't." He said knowingly, as Rebecca sighed in frustration, scowling over at him reproachfully.

"No... I don't." She huffed in irritation, tugging at the end of her ponytail distractedly. Taylor winked and stuck his tongue out, wiggling his brows suggestively as she finally gave in and laughed, shaking her head at his determination.

"So..." Quinn said, smiling even as she covered her mouth to hide a great yawn. "What happens now?" She asked, her expression clouding as she looked around them meaningfully, sobering their amusement.

"What d'ya mean..?" Rebecca asked, her brow furrowing as she looked around nervously, making sure nobody was listening to them. "I mean, ya found Diego, so... everythin's over now." She said determinedly, biting her lip when she noticed Taylor pointedly avoiding her eyes. "Right?" She asked, almost desperately.

Silence reigned over them for a moment, before Quinn cleared her throat quietly. "I doubt it." She said, quietly but determinedly, stifling another yawn.

"Those monster things..." Taylor muttered, picking at a scratch on his wrist distractedly. "I think they worked for Mr. Red. Like... puppets." He reluctantly admitted, glancing around them quickly before looking back at his wrist.

"What?" Rebecca snorted, frowning in disbelief. "He couldn't kill Diego on his own? He had to send pets to do it?" She scoffed derisively, as Taylor grimaced and finally met her gaze.

"I don't..." He began, coughing and clearing his throat when the words stuck in his throat. "I don't think they were trying to kill Diego. At least, not mainly." He confessed, wincing at the curious looks he received in return.

"How do you figure that, dude?" Raj asked, frowning but not outright dismissing the idea. Taylor sighed, shifting in his seat as he tried to find the words to explain himself.

"Well, think about it..." He began, spreading his palms as he tried to put his thoughts into words. "Diego was... totally helpless out there. They could've killed him easily, long before we finally went looking for him." He said, shaking his head as he sighed. "But, it was more like they wanted to... take him somewhere." 

"But ya stopped 'em." Rebecca pointed out, as if this settled the matter. She looked around at the others, who all averted their eyes in response.

"Which means," Taylor finally sighed, reluctantly looking up to meet her clear grey eyes. "They'll be back. Whatever Mr. Red wants..." He said, swallowing heavily as fear, concern and anxiety all clamoured in his throat. "I think he's just getting warmed up." He said, think back to his conversation with Diego. "Hey, look, I was wondering... um, can I ask you guys something..?" He began hesitantly, his eyes darting around the group as they nodded slowly. "When was the last time each of you talked to Diego?"

"Oh damn..." Zahra huffed, shrugging her shoulders dismissively, though her eyes widened, as some thought passed through her mind.

"I..." Quinn began, biting her lip as she carefully searched through her memories. "I don't know." She finally admitted, looking up at Taylor with a guilty expression.

"A couple years, maybe?" Raj asked more than told, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. "I can't say for sure dude, I might've spoken to him while I was outta it for all I know, and just not remember."

"Last day of school." Rebecca said quietly, her gaze lingering on her lap. "Just before summer vacation." She added, her eyes slowly rising to meet Taylors, as he turned to look at her.

"Did he seem... distracted?" He asked, swallowing as he tried to push away the rising guilt that he'd failed his friend twice over. "Did he bring up what happened, when we were kids?" He pressed, drawing in a deep breath before forcing himself to continue. "Did he... did he ask you about Mr. Red?"

"I... I don't remember." Rebecca said, shaking her bead as she tried to recall the exchange. Taylor sighed heavily, running a hand through his hair as he closed his eyes. "I think mostly we just, talked 'bout our plans for the summer. But..." She said suddenly, as Taylor peeled his eyes open and looked over at her knowingly. "Now that ya mention it, he did seem kinda... evasive?"

"Taylor, why are you bringing this up?" Raj asked, his eyes wide as he stared down at Taylor worriedly, as if afraid there were some ulterior motive for Taylor to be asking.

"I was just..." He replied, swallowing as he turned and looked back at the chair he'd previously been sitting in. "Thinking about a conversation he and I had... I was wondering if I was just, too blind to see just how stuck he was on it, on what happened when we were kids. He was still trying to make sense of it..." He said, shaking his head as he tried to fight back the stinging in his eyes, his hand curling into a tight fist. "I think I missed something important, being too focused on myself... And, I think maybe..."

"... Maybe, he went back to the woods by choice." Raj finished for him, as Taylor choked and failed to complete voicing his guilty thoughts.

"Oh, Taylor... It's not your fault." Quinn said, reaching out to take his hand, despite having to lean over Rebecca to do it. "Whatever happened, you mustn't blame yourself..."

"Well," Zahra sniffed, her heavy boot stomping to the floor determinedly, making Taylor jump and gently pull his hand free of Quinn's. "There's only one way we'll find out for sure."

"What?" Rebecca asked, frowning at Zahra as she rolled her eyes at her density.

Taylor sighed, reluctantly sitting straighter as he scrubbed a hand over his jaw. "We go to the hospital, and ask him." He said, just as the three o'clock belk rang, and Aleister finished his speech.

"So remember," the pale boy sneered, scowling around the hall in obvious irritation. "Do not try to befriend wild bears." He said, signalling the end of the assembly. 

Taylor promptly filed out with his friends, lingering by the lockers as students grabbed their things and headed home. "Hey," Zahra called, dumping her things in her locker before swinging her bag to her shoulder. "You walking?"

"Well, I don't have a car, so, yeah." He huffed, sniggering as she narrowed her eyes at him, before rapidly raising his hands up over his nose. "Wait, don't hit me again!"

"You're such a dork." Zahra sighed, shaking her head as Taylor lowered his hands and winked at her. "C'mon, I am also walking. We should do so in the same direction, at a similar pace."

Taylor blinked at Zahra, who's cheeks flushed faintly with the first hints of a blush.  "Dude, is this your weird way of saying you wanna walk with me?" He snorted, ducking his head to avoid her not so playful swat.

"Hey, do you mind if I tag along?" Quinn asked, smiling at them as she clutched some books to her chest. "I have to return these library books, and with there being a bear about and all..."

"Depends." Zahra said, raising a critical eyebrow at Quinn. "Can I run faster than you?" She asked, as Taylor snorted with laughter.

"Heehee..." Quinn giggled, flashing Zahra an innocent wink. "Oh, probably... unless, I'm just saying that to gain the advantage."

Taylor smiled, looking between his friends as warmth blossomed in his heart. How could I ever have let this go..? He wondered, shaking his head slowly as Quinn and Zahra bantered easily.

"... I think I need to reassess your threat level." Zahra said, narrowing her eyes thoughtfully as Quinn giggled innocently.

Taylor caught movement from the corner of his eye, and saw Sean nearby heading to basketball practice, accompanied by his teammate Tom. "Hey, go on ahead. I'll catch up." Sean said, as he paused by Taylor and the others in the hall.

"Sure thing." Tom replied, shooting finger guns at Sean as he continued down the hall. Sean glanced around, before quickly pulling Taylor aside.

"Last night, was insane." He said quickly, as Taylor blinked at him, leaning back against the lockers as Sean braced himself over him. "I'm sorry I took off before the cops showed up, man. I didn't wanna risk..." He paused, his expression crumpling with guilt. "You know my momma worries enough as it is-"

"Sean, it's okay!" Taylor blurted quickly, as Sean paused for breath, his brows rising in surprise. "I'm just... I'm glad you were there."

"Yeah." Sean said, nodding as a warm smile broke out across his face. "Of course." He said, glancing down the hall after Tom.

"Pfft, says he who wasn't gonna come." Taylor snorted, playfully shoving at Sean's other arm, and failing to move him at all. "Honestly though, I get it, dude. Your moms been through a lot the past couple years, you both have... It's okay."

"Thanks, Taylor. Means a lot." Sean said, his relief clear as his shoulders relaxed slightly. "Well, listen, I gave to get to practice, but... talk later?" He asked, backing away from Taylor slowly.

"Yeah." Taylor confirmed, smirking as he saluted him roughly. "Talk later, Captain America." He said, watching Sean laugh quietly and jog down the hall to catch up to his teammate. He shook his head fondly, turning back to the rest of his group just as Mayor McKenzie approached them.

"Hey, mom." Rebecca said stiffly, though her smile grew noticeably more relaxed, as Taylor stepped up beside her and gently slipped his hand into hers.

"Hello Rebecca. Everyone." Mayor McKenzie said, glancing around them briefly. "How're you kids holding up?" She asked, smiling invitingly.

"We're fine, mom." Rebecca answered, as Taylor cleared his throat quietly.

"Uh, actually..." He said awkwardly, as Rebecca turned and raised a brow at him. "Can I ask you a question?"

"Certainly." The Mayor replied, beaming at the potential interest in her campaign.

"You mentioned Diego still being in the hospital..." Taylor hedged, as the Mayors face fell.  "I was just wondering if we could see him yet? I mean, we tried this morning..." He said, trailing off as his throat constricted too tightly for him to continue.

"We need to talk to him about..." Rebecca chimed in, squeezing his hand as she faced her mother. "Uh... school stuff."

"I'm afraid the hospital's not allowing visitors yet." Mayor McKenzie said stiffly, frowning at Taylor dubiously. "I think they'd prefer to wait 'til Diego wakes up first."

"Wait, back up a second." Raj cried, his eyes wide as he stared at the Mayor in disbelief. "Diego still isn't awake? Are you saying he's like, in a coma?"

"I'm sorry." The Mayor said formally, shutting the discussion down tactfully. "It's just too soon to tell. But, as soon as there's any news, I'll make sure ya all aware." She said, glancing around them all with a faintly reminiscent smile. "Ya know, despite the circumstances, I'm glad to see ya all hangin' out again. Ya good kids."

"I reject that combination of words." Zahra drawled scathingly, glaring at the Mayor reproachfully.

"Well, I'd certainly prefer you to some of Rebecca's other friends..." The Mayor sniffed, ignoring her daughters sudden tensing of the shoulders.

"Mom, come on..." Rebecca muttered pleadingly, her cheeks turning red in embarrassment.

"Speak of the devil, dudes..." Raj said lowly, flicking his gaze down the hall. Taylor followed his gaze, and spotted Michelle making a beeline in their direction. "And that would be my cue, doodlejumps..." He said, scowling as he shook his head and quickly moved away in the opposite direction.

"Likewise." Rebecca muttered, as Taylor have her hand a final squeeze, before stepping between her and the approaching blonde. "Mom, let's go." She said insistently, shooing her mother away as Michelle drew closer.

"Hi, Quinn." Michelle said, surprising them all as she bit her lip and looked at the redhead with a guilty, regretful gaze.

"Uh... hi?" Quinn replied, glancing at Taylor and Zahra in wide eyed surprise and confusion. She looked balc at the blonde, leaning against Taylors side as she stifled another small yawn behind her hand.

"Listen," Michelle sighed, running her perfectly manicured hand through her long blonde hair. "Can we... talk?" She asked, while Taylor and Zahra traded skeptical glances. Quinn glanced at Taylor, pushing away from his side gently as Michelle led her toward the doors, as Taylor and Zahra followed closely behind.

"... Anyway," Michelle huffed, clearing her throat awkwardly as she noticed their audience. "I just wanted to say... I'm sorry." She finally said, ignoring Taylor and Zahra's dubiously raised brows.

"Excuse me?" Quinn choked, clutching her books tighter against her chest, as if to protect her heart from the blondes words.

Michelle sighed, rubbing her forehead, as if grappling with a headache. "I just, with Diego and everything..." The blonde sighed, wrapping her arms around her chest self consciously. "I was thinking about it, and I realised... I've been, kind of a bitch to you lately."

"Pfft, kind of?!" Taylor scoffed, unable to contain his incredulous disbelief. "You tormented her! Christ, if this is you not even trying, I dread to think what you'd do if you really hated someone..!" He said scathingly, scowling at the blonde in irritation.

Michelle glared at him, before pointedly ignoring his interruption, clearing her throat again as she turned her gaze towards Quinn. "... And, I'm sorry."

"Uh, it's fine, Michelle." Quinn said, blushing as she looked down at her feet briefly. "Th-thank you anyway, though." She added, glancing back at Taylor and Zahra.

"Great! So," Michelle said, immediately perking as Quinn turned back to her in surprise. "I have a question..." She said, her face lighting up suddenly, eyes bright and her grin full of perfect teeth. Quinn frowned, taking a step back, until she froze on surprise. "Would you want to get coffee sometime?"

"I... What?" Quinn choked, as taylor and Zahra stared at the blonde incredulously. They exchanged a brief glance, the idea of possession easily passing between them without words, both frowning as they turned back to the exchange. "You mean like a bunch of us, or..?"

"Actually," Michelle said slowly, her cheeks tingeing with pink as she threw a brief scowl at Taylor and Zahra, before looking back at Quinn hopefully. "I was thinking maybe, just you and me..?"

"You and m..." Quinn choked, blinking rapidly in her surprise. "Oh, wow!" She gasped, swallowing quickly as she lowered her gaze to the floor and tried to recompose herself. "Michelle... I really appreciate your apology, and if you'd asked me this time yesterday, my answer would have been an emphatic yes..." She said, her crystalline eyes slowly hardening. "But that was before I knew what you were doing to my friend. Before you and your lackeys pinned me last night... Before you told me that I would never be anything, but the dying girl to yo-" Quinn fell silent abruptly, a choked gasp escaping her as she swayed on the spot, her breath catching as tears spotted her cheeks.

"Quinn, I said I'm sorry!" Michelle protested, her eyes wide as Quinn refused her. "I... I didn't know how to cope, okay?! When you were diagnosed with that thing, I went and studied up on it. I wanted to do everything I could to help! But there's nothing!" She cried, her caramel eyes damp with frustration. "I just... I didn't know how I was supposed to deal with that; to deal with losing you! It was just, so much easier to push you away..."

Quinn didn't respond, and Taylor frowned as she continued to sway, stepping forward and reaching for her hesitantly. "Quinn..?" He called gently, gasping when the redhead crumpled into his arms. "Quinn!" He cried, sinking to the floor as he held her carefully in his arms.

"Oh my god!" Michelle gasped, hurrying forward and falling to her knees beside them. "Quinn! For gods sake, don't hold her like that! Put her in the recovery position!" She demanded, reaching for Quinn only for Taylor to slap her hand away.

"You've done enough!" He snarled, as Zahra hurried over. "You wanna help, get her a damn ambulance! Might as well get one good thing outta your damn phone..." He growled, as Michelle blinked at him in shock. However, despite expecting an argument, Taylor was pleasantly surprised when the blonde hurried to her feet and quickly phoned for an ambulance. He looked down at Quinn, gently moving her into the recovery position, and stroking a swath of red hair from her clammy cheek. "Come on, Quinn..." He murmured, his throat thick with grief as he tried to push away the thoughts of Quinn's failing health; telling himself it was just shock, and she would be fine. He glanced up ay Zahra, who was watching them nervously, her foot tapping in agitation."Let the others know..." He said quietly, giving her something to focus on. 

Zahra nodded and stepped away, drawing out her phone and rapidly texting their recently re-acquainted friends. Taylor swallowed, looking back down at Quinn with the desperate plea in his heart; please don't let this be it, please let her be okay.

Taylor counted in his head, as the minutes ticked by. Zahra and Michelle worked well together to keep back the forming crowd around them, making sure Quinn had enough space and air, as Taylor remained beside her and fervently wished for her to wake up. "Must be some sorta full moon, mystic shit going on." Zahra said, glaring at anyone who dared try and push their way closer, as the ambulance and medical staff showed up. "Michelle being nice to her, must have pushed her over the edge." She said, scowling at the blonde, as she kept others back with fierce threats across the other side of the space they'd kept clear around Quinn.

"Shut up..." Taylor muttered absently, exchanging an uncertain glance with her, as the medics approached. He jerked his chin at them in acknowledgment, before lowering his gaze to Quinn. "Her name is Quinn Kelly, she just... collapsed. She, uh... she has Rotterdam's Syndrome." He said thickly, noticing the medics trade worried glances as they gently lifted Quinn onto a stretcher.

"You've done the right thing to help her." One of them assured, a blonde woman with a severe expression. "We'll get her seen as soon as possible, and she'll be in the best place for her."

"Can we come with-" Taylor began, only for the medic to already begin shaking her head, the other closing the doors to the ambulance; sealing Quinn away from them.

"I'm sorry, family only." She said, before hurrying around to the passenger side of the ambulance and hopping in quickly, barely closing the door before the vehicle sped out of the school grounds.

"They're right..." Michelle said quietly, watching them go with an intense gaze. "It's the best place for her now-"

"What the hell do you know, huh?" Taylor spat, rounding on her furiously. "Who the hell are you, to be screaming at her last night and asking her for bloody coffee today?! I mean what?" He fumed, his fear twisting in his gut, spiralling into a hateful rage which he couldn't help but direct at the petite blonde. "Are you happy now?! You might finally be free of her trying to reach out to you and make you remember you had a heart onc-"

"Taylor!" Zahra yelled, scowling as she stepped between him and Michelle and lightly shoved him away. "Get a goddamn grip, you're not helping!" She growled, glancing at Michelle's downcast, guilty expression. "Whatever the fuck just happened, we got a long ass walk ahead of us, if we're gonna get to the hospital before visiting hours are over." She said pointedly, jerking her head toward the school gates.

Taylor sighed, trying to get a grip on his panic and force it back down his throat. He exhaled shakily, nodding to Zahra as words failed him and quickly grabbing his things, before hurrying after her towards the gate.

"What do you think that was..?" Zahra demanded in a fierce whisper, as soon as they were away from the crowds, and especially Michelle. "Guilt, a trap, or-"

"I don't know." Taylor grit out, his heart racing as they jogged into town and past the hardware store, turning to cross the next road, only to have a familiar car pull up before them.

"Well my day just improved, ain't every day I get to see such a-" the cocky greeting fell short, as the window rolled down to reveal Taylors increasingly distressed expression to the driver, causing Jake's brow to furrow in concern. "What is it, Boy Scout? Ya look like someone just di-"

"A friend of ours..." Zahra said, glancing at Taylor as he flinched and withdrew into himself. "She collapsed at school, we were trying to get to the hospital to see her." She said, pointedly eyeing his car before glancing over again to note Taylors rapidly unravelling mental state.

"Get in." Jake said, patting his hand against the side of the car, as he glanced between the pair quickly. Taylor frowned, as Zahra opened the back door and slid into the seat without further prompting, leaving him stood at the side of the road on confusion. "Taylor." Jake said firmly, drawing Taylors gaze to his own, as he tipped his head to the open door. "Get in. I'll take ya to ya friend." He said, gently but firmly.

Zahra however, decided she had waited long enough, leaning azide and grabbing Taylors wrist. "Get in, idiot." She demanded, scowling as she yanked him to the seat with her and quickly shut the door behind him.

Taylor sat in confused silence, still unable to process Jake's appearance and aid, even as he revved his engine and took off toward the hospital on the far side of town. Zahra talked to Jake as he drove, filling him in on what had happened, as Taylor tried to find his way free of his tortured thoughts. "So, it's 'lil Red? The quiet one, with the illness?" He clarified, glancing between Taylor and Zahra in his rearview mirror, as Zahra nodded and Taylor turned to look out the side window. "Damn..." He murmured, his foot pressing the accelerator more determinedly and carrying them towards the hospital faster.

Taylor watched the scenery pass by vacantly, thinking of Quinn and desperately wishing he hadn't wasted so much of the previous years. Please let her be okay, please don't let her- his thoughts cut off abruptly as Jake swung his car through the car park and slid into a space with a practiced ease, before quickly jumping out to open the door for Zahra and Taylor. "I didn't phone her parents..." Taylor mumbled, frowning as Jake and Zahra encouraged him to get out.

"'S all right, Boy Scout." Jake said, gesturing towards the hospital. When Taylor showed no sign of actually moving, Jake huffed and lightly slipped his hand into Taylors, gently tugging him towards the ominous building. "Hospital staff would've phoned her folks, soon as she came in. Chances are they're on their way or already here."

Taylor frowned down at his hand, vaguely thinking that Jake's rough, large hand around his own should elicit more of a giddy reaction from him, but too lost in his concerns to actually enjoy the sensation past the faintest warming of his palms. He squirmed awkwardly as they paused at the help desk, before Jake began to pull him carefully through the halls, weaving through other patients, visitors and medical staff as he searched for the room he'd been told Quinn was in.

"Here ya go..." Jake said at last, the pilot drawing Taylor to a halt beside a room near the back of the hospital. "Room fourteen-oh-eight, that's where they said she was, right Skrillex?"

Zahra narrowed her eyes, glancing between Jake and Taylor suspiciously as she nodded, pausing to cock her head as she peered inside. "Yeah, but damn these guys must work fast... Taylor look, she's awake!" She said, finally breaking through the haze of fear and apathy as he stepped up to Quinn's room, and peeled through her door window.

"... What the..?" Taylor choked, his eyes widening as he beheld the numerous staff around the redheads bed, and Quinn herself looking around in bafflement.

"Hey, easy there..." Jake chuckled quietly, holding him back from barging into the room by gently squeezing his hand. Taylor blinked, looking down at their linked hands in surprise, feeling a blush begin creeping up his throat. "Just let the doc's do their thing." Jake said, glancing at the colour rising over Taylors skin with a smirk, as his blush worked its way to his cheeks. "I'm sure they'll let ya in, just as soon as-"

"Please do not loiter in doors, young man." An exasperated voice huffed, before jostling Taylor out of the way. Jake steadied him, bracing his elbow carefully as Taylor forward, before turning with a scowl.

"Hey, I thought doctors were supposed to be friendly, not assholes." He groused, as a man stomped out of the room, glancing back with an irritated frown.

"Maybe when our time isn't wasted, we might be a little friendlier." The man snapped, scowling as he continued to sweep down the hall. "Now if you don't mind, I've got real patients to help." 

Taylor blinked after the man, frowning as he and Zahra exchanged uncertain glances. As more doctors began to exit, Taylor moved aside, the hand linked with Jake's falling behind his back as he stepped closer and watced the doctors leaving. "Excuse me," he finally asked what he thought was the final one. "But can we see her? Is she alright?" He aksed urgently, as Jake squeezed his hand reassuringly.

"Of course you can." They replied, glancing back at Quinn with a small frown. "There's nothing else we can do, she'll be discharged shortly." They said, before moving away again.

Taylors heart clenched, a sound of distress escaping his throat. "How can you all be so callous?!" He demanded, scowling after the doctor on irritation, as they barely paused and glanced back at him. "Don't you care at all that she's-"

"Taylor, is that you?" Quinn's voice floated through the door, her tearful tone unmistakable as Taylor turned away from the doctor in disgust. 

"Hey, don't go giving this idiot all the glory." Zahra scoffed, stepping into the room with a smirk plastered to her face. "I did awesome stuff and came to see you too." 

"Oh my god... I'm so happy to see you guys," Quinn choked, her eyes watering as she smiled at them brightly. Taylor frowned, following behind Zahra and never even noticing Jake's hand slipping free of his own. 

"When did you wake up, beautiful?" Taylor asked, stepping up beside her bed and brushing his knuckles over her cheek gently. "You really scared the shit outta us, you know that, right?"

"I'm sorry..." Quinn whispered, leaning her cheek into his touch as she smiled radiantly. "But, I think I got the bigger shock, waking up in here with all these doctors and nurses around me..." She said gently, beaming up at him as Zahra raised a brow at her jubilant mood.

"What, they give you some gas and air, or something?" She snorted, clicking her tongue appreciatively. "Damn, I missed my chance to steal some then... You seriously look higher than a kite right now."

"No... they didn't give me anything." Quinn hummed, smiling over at Zahra giddily. "They're calling my parents now, let them know I can go home whenever I want."

"Shouldn't they check you out some more?" Taylor asked, frowning as he swept her hair from her brow. "I mean, what's the rush? Normally they keep you in at least twenty four hours, rig-"

"They can't. There's nothing for them to do, and no reason to keep me." Quinn giggled, her smile growing as Taylor's brows furrowed deeper. "It's gone, Taylor. It's just... gone." She said, laughing when he and Zahra traded uncertain glances. "My Rotterdam's... It's gone, guys!"

Taylor blinked, his mouth opening and closing as her words filtered through his head. Gone... gone. Gone... He thought nlankly, before a great gush of air escaped him and he reached for her shoulders in disbelief. "Gone?" He repeated his thoughts, as Quinn giggled and beamed excitedly.

"Like, as if I never had it; they literally can't find a trace of it. They've taken a few blood samples to double check but, there's literally nothing else they can think of to do with me. So, they're letting me go..." She said quickly, as Taylor swamped her in a tight hug. "Hey, wait a minute... How did you guys get here so quick? I've only been awake a half hour, and its an hours walk from school to the hos-"

"Oh my god!" Taylor choked, his eyes widening in horror as he turned back to the door, only to find the room and hallway empty. "Oh no... Ohhh... I feel sick..." He gasped, pulling away from Quinn to touch his nose briefly, before burying his face in his hands. "Oh my god!"

"Uh... why's Taylor broken right now..?" Quinn asked, watching him worriedly as she rose from the bed and looked over at Zahra curiously, uncertain if she should reach for Taylor or not.

"Oh, he's just realising he acted like a complete and utter tool in front of the guy he's crushing on hard, and with a busted nose at that." Zahra said teasingly, smirking as Taylor peeked over his fingers at her, his face a deep shade of pink as he pulled his hand free and stared at it in disbelief. "Ooh, look; you can see it in his head, the realisation that the guy held his hand too... Not that Taylor even noticed when he left."

"He what?!" Taylor yelped, spinning to stare out the doorway in horror. "Oh god, I can never see him again. I have to leave town... I have to change my name, I need to change my face-"

"Or you could just go say thanks now, and save yourself the trouble." Zahra snorted, as Taylor blinked and looked over at her. "He left like five minutes ago. If you run, you should catch up to him-"

Taylor was moving before she finished, darting out the door and racing away through the halls barely catching sight of the exit signs to direct him. He burst through the main entrance just as Jake jogged across the road ahead of an approaching car, and he blindly raced after him in his urgency. "Jake!" He cried, drawing the Navy pilot to pause and turn back in surprise, his eyes wide when he saw Taylor dart forward onto the road before the car.

"What the-" he choked, reaching back and yanking Taylor out of the cars path, his arm locking around his waist as he swept him around his body and away from the road. "Bloody hell, what the hell were ya thinkin-"

"Thankyou!" Taylor blurted, throwing his face over Jake's shoulder as he held him tightly, his body trembling as he panted for breath. "I'm sorry, I just... I spaced out, and I forgot; hell, I didn't even realise, and I-"

"Whoa, whoa, whoa..." Jake said soothingly, rubbing Taylors shoulder as he frowned and prized himself away from him. "Slow down there, Boy Scout... Gonna need a little help translatin' that." He chuckled, looking Taylor over in concern.

"I just... Thankyou, for helping." Taylor said, swallowing heavily as he jerked back from the pilot as if burned, suddenly realising his over familiarity. He flushed guiltily, clearing his throat as he gestured towards the hospital. "She might have already gone home by the time we got here, if you hadn't..." 

"Glad I could help, just... try not to get yaself killed thankin' me next time." Jake snickered, shaking his head as he ran a hand through his hair. "I'd prefer not to have to give ya mouth to mouth out here..."

"Oh..? That mean you'd be fine to give me mouth to mouth somewhere else?" Taylor asked quickly, wiggling his brows as Jake coughed on a surprised laugh.

"Damn, you don't hold back, do ya?" Jake asked as he recovered himself, as Taylor grinned and winked. "Ahem... I uh, I'm not sure how to answer that."

"Sorry, that was probably... Uh, I didn't mean to assume... I mean, does that mean you... don't want to..?" Taylor asked uncertainly, his confidence suddenly shaken by the other mans furrowed brow.

"Don't wanna dig myself a deeper hole, maybe..." Jake snorted, his expression clearing as Taylor bit his lip and tried to slow the rapid increase of his heart rate, as relief and hope overwhelmed his common sense. "Still can't believe an eighteen year old can keep surprisin' me, to be honest..." He laughed, shaking his head fondly, before catching sight of his watch and scowling suddenly. "But shit, I uh, I actually gotta get goin'." 

"Oh, I'm sorry! Um, I just wanted... You know. Thanks." Taylor said awkwardly, stepping aside to let Jake past him to his car. As the pilot slid between his car and the next, Taylors eyes lit with amusement, and he couldn't help but make a parting quip. "Wow... Looks like you're a real pro at getting into tight spaces." He said, entirely unsubtly as he winked at the pilot slyly, causing him to bark another rough laugh.

Jake leaned on the roof of his car, cocking his head at him as he sucked in a deep breath with a thoughtful hum. "Ya determined to get me in trouble, ain't ya, Boy Scout?" He asked, a cocky grin spreading across his face as Taylor pretended to consider briefly.

"Hmm... I'm determined to get you into something, sure." He said, flashing a bright smile at the pilot as he began to back away slowly. "But it's certainly not trouble." He said, winking as Jake chuckled and watched him intently as he walked backwards. "But, uh, seeing as you brought it up, how am I doing, Top Gun?" He asked coyly.

Jake huffed, pushing off the roof of his car with a smirk. "Wouldn't you like to know?" He fired back, before opening his door and disappearing into his car. Taylor grinned, his heart racing as Jake slowly reversed and then winked as he passed him, turning out onto the road to head back to town.

Taylor sighed and lowered his gaze to the ground, kicking at the pavement as he idly made his way back to his friends in the hospital. Hot pilot, very hot... scorching hot, and actually flirts back with me. Oh my god... He thought, shivering as he bit his lip and recalled the feel of the pilots large hand around his own. Please Taylor, for the sake of everything in the world; do not screw this up by being yourself. He told himself firmly, his sappy grin never fading as he felt his heart radiate with genuine happiness for the first time, in what could well have been ten years. Finally, things are on the up again.

Chapter Text

6.

What's Coming To You: Part Two.

Taylor was still grinning like a fool, as he dawdled his way back into Quinn's room a short time later, humming to himself as his friends leaned against the edge of the redheads bed and talked quietly. "Well, since we're on the subject of mysterious occurrences of uncertain origin-" Zahra began, only for Quinn to shake her head and laugh.

"Wait, what?!" She giggled, looking at Zahra with the same beaming smile she had Taylor earlier, and he wondered if she would stop smiling at all this side of Christmas.

"Your whole magic healing thing, you know, where you ditched the disease you got diagnosed with at age four." Zahra said, shrugging her shoulder dismissively as she frowned at Quinn for her interruption.

"Oh yes, that." Quinn giggled, shaking her head fondly. "I'll have to remember to call it by its proper name in future... 'a mysterious occurrence of uncertain origin', wasn't it?" She teased, laughing when Zahra rolled her eyes at her.

"Yes, now shut up so I can tell you what happened to me today..." She huffed, grinning wickedly as she launched into a brief but relatively detailed explanation of their morning encounter with Estela, though she omitted something which Taylor felt was highly important.

"Yes, and don't forget to mention how you busted my nose!" He said hotly, though his giddy grin spoilt the effect of his scolding significantly.

"Oh, look what the cat dragged in..." Quinn giggled, as she and Zahra turned to see his approach. She laughed as he flopped bonelessly over her bed, his head coming to rest in her lap as he grinned up at her. "I take it you found him, then?"

"I flirted." He said proudly, his cheeks turning a warm pink as Quinn laughed and ran her fingers through his hair affectionately, while Zahra snorted and rolled her eyes.

"Well done, you." Quinn giggled, smiling down at his self satisfied expression. "So, I take it this guy is cute then?" She said knowingly, as Zahra scoffed at Taylors eager nodding.

"He's okay," she admitted, grinning as she nudged Taylors shoulder, ignoring his reproachful pout for disturbing his relaxed position. "'Course, I'm just looking forward to seeing Rebecca flip at him for hitting on her brother again."

"Oh, Taylor..." Quinn huffed, as Taylor grinned unashamedly, humming contentedly. "You don't like to do things the easy way, do you..?" She giggled, as he shook his head slowly.

He pointed to Zahra suddenly, his face falling comically as he touched the tiny mark on his nose with his other hand. "Zahra smashed her locker door into my face." He complained, as Zahra shrugged dismissively at his accusation. "She made me less pretty."

"Oh shut up, Taylor. You're still pretty and you know it." Quinn laughed, finally shoving him off her lap and sending him sprawling off her bed with a surprised yelp.

"I don't." Zahra said with a smirk, sniggering as Taylor scowled and sniffed at them both.

"You guys are so horrible to me..." He huffed, dusting himself off as he turned his back on them both in childish petulance, while continuing to mutter to himself quietly.

"So, this whole... thing with the locker." Quinn said hesitantly, steering them back on topic as her amusement at Taylors antics faded slightly. "Are you positive there's not some other explanation..?" She asked, biting her lip as Taylor snorted.

"My nose is entirely positive." He groused, scowling as Zahra chuckled and tipped her chin toward him in agreement.

"About as positive the doctors are about your illness curing itself." Zahra said, clicking her tongue as she spread her palms at Quinn's conflicted expression. "I'm telling you... I thought it, and it happened."

"So, you're suddenly telekinetic, and I'm mysteriously cured..." Quinn began, frowning as she considered their situation, before flashing a coy grin at Taylors turned back. "And Taylor has someone actually flirting with him-"

"Hey! Why does that have to be lumped in with the strange and mysterious?" He cried, turning with an accusing glare, as Quinn giggled and bumped her fist against Zahra's when the other girl presented it to her.

"Because you're a hopeless idiot..." She huffed affectionately, blowing him a kiss when he pouted at her reproachfully.

"Hey, never mind his loser ass..." Zahra sneered, though her lips twitched with amusement. "Lets get back to the important point here; me, and my new kickass ability to slam my locker-"

"... into my nose." Taylor concluded for her, scowling as she merely rolled her eyes at him. "Fine, fine... I'll let it go, for now." He said, narrowing his eyes as Zahra stared at him blankly, before he finally huffed and shook his head. "So, think you can do it again, Snape?"

"Snape?!" Zahra growled, scowling as she jabbed a finger at him. "You are so not calling me that." She demanded, as a slow grin broke out across Taylors face.

"Oh, you don't like that one?" He asked, snickering when Zahra flushed with irritation. "Well, that's settled. From here on, I dub thee; Snape. Because he is grumpy and magical, just like you." He said fondly, bopping her on the nose as she jerked back with an expression of disgust.

"You know, I've been trying to do this finicky ass thing again all day, but maybe I just need to practice on your face again..." She threatened, glaring at him as he smiled back at her unaffectedly. She sighed, sensing her loss on the matter, running a hand through he Mohawk as she thought for a moment. "Pretty sure I moved an eraser in Social Studies..." She finally huffed, turning away from Taylors victorious, smug grin. "Best I figure, is that its like a muscle... Like, maybe if I rest it a little bit, it'll come back stronger... And then pretty soon, I'll get all psychic-swole." She said, looking at her hands with a faint glimmer of excitement in her gaze.

"I just don't know about all this..." Quinn said, worrying her lip as she frowned uncertainly. "Doesn't the timing seem odd? Like, maybe this all has something to do with... you know..." She said, trailing off as the amusement faded from the room, even Taylor turning serious at the troubling thought.

"Redfield?" Zahra muttered, frowning out of the small bedside window. Taylor raised a brow, as Quinn gasped and glanced around worriedly.

"Don't say his name!" She whispered urgently, her eyes wide with concern as she wrapped her arms around her chest as if she were cold.

"Quinn..." Taylor sniggered quietly, shaking his head as he stepped forward and pulled her into a one armed hug. "He isn't Voldemort."

"You don't know what he is, Taylor!" She said hotly, wriggling free of his hold to glare at him. "None of us do..." She said, shivering as she paced across the room. "Diego goes missing, turns up in a coma. Weird monsters prowling the woods. I collapse, and should probably be having a million new meds shoved into me to wake me up... Now this like, witchcraft stuff too? What if Mr. Red is doing all this?" She pressed, pausing as she turned towards Zahra with a haunted gleam in her eyes. "What if he's behind all this? What is he's manipulating you? Or controlling you?"

"Okay, first of all, I object to the persecutory undertones if the word 'witchcraft', 'cause lets face it; I make this shit badass." Zahra scoffed, gesturing to herself proudly. "Second of all; no one controls me!"

"But that's what you would say if you were!" Quinn persisted, as Zahra paused, her brows rising in surprise.

"I... wow." She huffed, scratching behind her ear thoughtfully. "Oof." She said, as Taylor frowned between them both. "I guess, you might be onto something there..." She admitted reluctantly.

"Hey, Snape, give me a dollar." Taylor said quickly, receiving a middle finger gesture and an irritated scowl in response. "Okay, I am pretty sure that is one person who is not being controlled..." He snorted, bumping his fist to hers as her eyes flashes with grateful relief. " I mean come on guys, why would Redfield do any of this? What exactly does a monster gain, from handing out superpowers and magic cure-alls? Not, that I am looking a gift horse in the mouth here..."

"Servants?" Quinn asked, frowning as she shook her head lightly. "No... Oh, what's that other word..?" She muttered, her fingers tapping against her arms as she thought. "Thralls!" She cried suddenly, her crystalline eyes rising to flit from Taylor to Zahra, gazing at her intently. "What if Mr. Red, wants to make you into some kind of... puppet? Like those other monsters you fought..."

Quinn's words struck a chord, and Taylor bit his lip in mounting concern as Zahra shuddered, but covered it up with a snarky scoff. "A badass like me? Psh..." She snorted, though her confident words were belied by her uncertain expression. "That... that could never happen." She said, looking over at Taylor with the first hints of genuine concern in her eyes. "Could it?"

Taylor shook his head, the gesture hiding the fear in his eyes as he wiped away all his uncertainty from his expression and pasted a soft smile across his face. "Zahra, we won't let that happen." He said warmly, his smile growing as she rolled her eyes but noticeably regained some of her usual attitude.

"Urgh, Taylor... can you chill with all that 'power of friendship' stuff?" She demanded, grimacing in distaste at the sentimentality behind his words. "You're gonna give me a cavity..." She said, scowling at him as he tried to hide his amusement. "But, it does make me feel better, so... Thanks." She reluctantly confessed, rolling her eyes as he snorted and huffed a dry laugh.

For a moment they remained silent, each lost to their own thoughts on the sudden good luck which seemed to have affected their lives. "Look..." Zahra said suddenly, licking her lips briefly before turning to the others determinedly. "I'm not gonna not explore this, just because its supposedly evil..." She said, scowling as Quinn began to say something, before pushing on to finish her sentence. "But, I'll be careful." She promised, grimacing at the words despite their success in placating Quinn for the moment. "And, if I start hearing like, creepy whispers, telling me to murder my friends; you guys will be the first to know... One way or another." 

"... Felt sick from being so nice, didn't you?" Taylor laughed as Zahra grimaced and looked away, her cheeks stained with a hint of pink from embarrassment.

"Oh my gosh, Zahra!" Quinn scolded, trying to scowl but failing as she was overwhelmed by laughter instead. "That is so not funny!"

"I mean, it's a little funny." Taylor snickered, as Zahra scowled and purposely avoided their eyes. "But look, how about this? We were gonna take Quinn's library books back anyway, so why not take a look around in the library? See if we can find out anything from there?"

"Urgh, voluntary research..." Zahra sneered distastefully, though she didn't otherwise resist the idea. "I'm not sure I wanna know that bad..." She snorted, shaking her head as she moved towards the doorway.

"What about if I said I'd stretch to pizza and beer after?" Taylor asked, as Zahra paused and quickly reconsidered.

"I am all in for free alcohol." She said, as Quinn giggled and looped her arm through Taylors, heading down to the reception desk with them to see if her discharge was ready. "But seriously, like, I mean a lot of alcohol. Drinking til we puke amounts of alcohol; oh Taylor! You should call my dad again so I can stay at yours, then we can get really wrecked."

"Once in this lifetime, was more than enough." Taylor muttered, grimacing as he recalled his last conversation with Zahra's father, the previous evening. "I'm gonna be traumatised by that phone call til the day I die." He sulked, quickly calling a cab as they waited for Quinn to sign a few papers and discharge herself. Once she was finished, they strode out the main entrance and clambered into the waiting cab, filling Quinn in on the awkward phone call Taylor had shared with Zahra's father the night before. Upon reaching their destination, Taylor quickly paid the fare and followed behind his friends, the sound of their laughter carrying them into the library.

Inside, Taylor milled around the stacks, not so subtly eyeing the 'adult' section with a thoughtful frown; distractedly chatting with Zahra, while Quinn returned her books. "Well, three guesses what you're thinking about." Zahra snorted, rolling her eyes when Taylor responded with a vague hum for the third time in a row. "Honestly, if you're still a virgin after homecoming, I'm gonna hex you... And him." She sniffed, startling Taylor from his thoughts as he yelped in surprise and flushed crimson. "I'll make it so neither one of you can sit down, until you've damn well got it over with." She sneered, scowling as Taylor shushed her and glanced around quickly.

"Zahra!" He hissed, wrapping his arms around his torso as he frowned at her. "What the hell makes you so certain I'm a virgin anyway?" He demanded, scowling at her in irritation.

"Pfft, please." Zahra scoffed, shaking her head at him woefully. "You light up at the first sign of a hot, single guy within fifteen feet of you. You're like a peacock." She said, smirking when Taylor flushed and scowled at her.

"I..." Taylor sniffed, before his breath escaped him in a heavy sigh. "Wish I could deny that." He said sheepishly, reaching up to scratch his ear, as he looked over at her guiltily. "I'm sorry, okay? What were you saying?"

"I said, I think there must be something in the water around here." Zahra repeated, sighing wearily as she pinched the bridge of her nose.

"Uh..." Taylor frowned, cocking his head in confusion as Zahra rolled her eyes to the ceiling. "I... was gonna lie, but I just decided against it. I don't follow... What do you mean, Snape?" He admitted in a rush, grinning at Zahra's obviously mounting frustration.

"This town has, like, a history of spooky weirdness." She grit out, narrowing her eyes at his serious expression and agreeable nod. "Witch trials, cults; you name it."

"Witch trials, say you..." Taylor hummed, winking as he nudged her shoulder playfully. "A good place for us to start looking, says I! Arrrr!" He sniggered, as she stared at him with a flat and unimpressed glare. 

"Yeah." She drawled, as Taylor pouted at her lack of enthusiasm for his pirate impression. She cleared her throat and looked around the library thoughtfully, leaving Taylor to fiddle dejectedly with a nearby book. "Back in the eighteen hundreds. I'm pretty sure they hanged a bunch of women."

"Whaaat?!" Taylor gasped, frowning suddenly in consternation. "Wait, how have I never heard about this?" He asked curiously, as Zahra smirked at him.

"Because you live under a rock?" She said dryly, as Taylor snorted and hummed in vague agreement. "But for real, it's not exactly the kind of thing they put in tourism pamphlets." She said, as Quinn returned from the counter.

"What are we talking about?" The redhead asked, beaming a bright smile between them both.

"Taylors lack of skill in losing his virginity." Zahra quipped dryly, bursting out in raucous laughter at Taylors sudden, strained choking. "Oh my god, Quinn, look at his face!" She chortled, shaking her head as Quinn bit her lip in an attempt to contain a laugh, upon beholding Taylors scarlet cheeks.

"If we happen to see it, I am so letting that damn bear eat you." Taylor groused, folding his arms over his chest as he glared at Zahra accusingly. He narrowed his eyes as Quinn giggled briefly, before quickly covering her mouth and lowering her gaze apologetically. "Ahem... We were actually talking about Westchester's spooky history." He sneered, turning away with a petulant huff.

"Does it have one?" Quinn gasped, looking over at Zahra in wide eyed surprise, hesitant to believe the usually sarcastic girl.

"Yes!" Zahra said, scowling at Taylor as if Quinn's disbelief were somehow his fault. "I'm not making this stuff up." She groused, sniffing derisively as she glanced around the library.

For a moment they stood in silence, Taylor still pouting over Zahra's teasing, while she flipped the bird at him unrepentantly. "Well," Quinn said, her radiant smile returning as she pointed across the library. "If we are looking into it, I suggest we start in the history section. And," she paused, biting her lip as she glanced around briefly, before lowering her voice. "We might even be able to learn more about... you know who."

Taylor raised a brow, glancing around suspiciously himself before stepping closer and wrapping his arm around her shoulders. "I'm surprised you want to..." He admitted, causing Quinn to laugh quietly.

"I don't." She huffed, looking up at him with determination. "But, if something is after us, I'd prefer to understand it." She said, smiling as she leaned into his side affectionately. "Also, I just like hanging out with you guys, and I wanna grab as much time as I can before my parents expect me home."

"Aw, that was so cute, Quinn." Zahra drawled dryly, rolling her eyes towards her in a flat glare. "I think I'm gonna barf." She sniffed, turning to Taylor as Quinn giggled. "Well, dork? What do you say?"

"Huh? I thought it was my idea to come do some digging, then we can go do some drinking. Or, grab something to drink at mine... Either or." He said, looking around suspiciously before whispering exaggeratedly. "Alcohol." He laughed, as Zahra grinned and bumped her fist to his, before liking around the shelves curiously. "So, where do we start, beautiful?" He asked, jostling Quinn and playfully swatting her on her ass.

"Hey!" She laughed, shaking her head as she gestured across the library. "Follow me." She said, heading over to a library computer and sitting in the chair, pulling up a catalog search while Taylor and Zahra crowded behind her. "Okay, so first off, let's try... 'Westchester' and 'witches'." She said, her fingers moving quickly over the keys before hitting enter, only to have a tonne of useless results fill the screen.

"Urgh, so much for that..." She muttered, tossing her hair over her shoulder as she frowned and cleared away the search results.

"Try, 'Oregon cults'." Zahra suggested, ignoring Taylors raised brow as Quinn did as she was asked, hitting enter again; only to shake her head.

"Same thing." She said, frowning at the screen as if were being deliberately obstinate. "We need to narrow down the search somehow."

Taylor felt a shadow pass over his heart, and he cleared his throat roughly as he stared at the screen. "Try looking for death records." He suggested quietly, pretending not to notice the glances both Zahra and Quinn sent him. "Look for hangings, burnings, stuff like that."

"... Good idea." Quinn said, though Taylor wasn't so sure himself, already regretting his suggestion; as Quinn made a few light keystrokes and pushed enter, causing a handful of promising results to pop up on the screen. 

"Nice work, Taylor." Zahra praised dryly, bumping her fist into his shoulder with more force than Taylor felt was necessary. 

Quinn studied the search results, humming thoughtfully as she browsed quickly. "Okay, I see two here we should check out." She said, pointing to the screen. "The first is a book. Records and Files of the Quarterly Courts of Klamath Country, Volume Eight..."

"Wow, what a mouthful..." Taylor huffed, snickering to himself. "And not the kind I'd-"

"On it." Zahra said, rolling her eyes as she cut Taylor off, writing down the Dewey number before disappearing deeper into the library.

"Nobody ever appreciates my jokes..." Taylor pouted, sighing forlornly as Quinn snorted and glanced up from the screen.

"Taylor, you weren't joking..." He giggled quietly, as Taylor shrugged dismissively, though his cheeks flared with the faint tell of a guilty blush.

"Ahem... So, uh, what's the other... thing?" He asked, changing the subject as he ran a hand through his short red hair, unintentionally missing his spikes.

"Looks like..." Quinn said, frowning as she leaned closer to the screen and scanned the second promising result. "A newspaper article..? Let me see if I can bring it up." She said, clicking a few links and finally bringing the article up on screen, allowing Taylor to lean on the back of her chair, as he began to read aloud.

"August twenty second, nineteen seventy six..." He said, frowning in confusion briefly, until his eyes widened suddenly, distracted by the headline of the article. "Klamath County Police Discover... Forest Massacre?! Holy shi-"

"Oh my god..." Quinn gasped, her hand over her mouth as she scanned the article quickly, before beginning to read aloud herself. "... remains of fourteen young men and women, suspected to be a part of a religious group, were found in the Westchester woods a few days ago..."

"Those are our woods." Taylor whispered harshly, his breath quickening as his stomach churned uneasily. He tried to calm himself down, telling himself it couldn't be related; but his heart vehemently refused to accept the cheap lie.

"... authorities characterized deaths as a mass suicide; but questions have arisen, regarding mutilated remains and... ritualistic posing..." Quinn gasped, her eyes wide as she shook her head in disbelief.

"It's gotta be Redfield!" Taylor choked, his hands curling into tight fists, a she stared at the article with a rising sense of nausea in his gut. "He must have murdered them, just like he did with-" he choked off, swallowing thickly against the grief and guilt which consumed him. I set a mass murdering, demonic spirit loose on my friends... God, I'm lucky any of them survived! He thought, his throat constricting with the bitter taste of bile.

"This is crazy..." Quinn whispered, her fingers trembling as she raised them to her brow, swiping away an imagined strand of hair from her eyes. 

They both jumped as Zahra returned suddenly, carrying an ancient ledger with brass rings. "You think that's crazy..." She scoffed, smirking smugly as she banged the ledger down on the table, kicking up a load of dust. "Get a load of this!" She crowed, planting her finger on an open page. 

Taylor frowned, pushing aside the awful nausea in his gut as he stepped closer to the book and peered at the passage Zahra indicated. "Trial proceedings for the people of Westchester versus... Wow." Taylor choked, his eyes widening as he looked at the long list of the accused. "That's a lot if names. Who are all these women?" He wondered aloud, glancing up when Zahra chuckled darkly.

"The survivors of a massacre, on trial for witchcraft." She said smugly, motioning toward Quinn as the two of them lowered their faces toward the faded print. "Testimony of Rosemary Willow, November ninth, eighteen seventy one..." Zahra read aloud, her finger following the passage gently. "Miss Willow, please describe for the court where you were on the night of All Hallows Eve..."

"Walking home from a masquerade party, through the woods off... Mill Creek Road." Quinn intoned, trading off with Zahra as they took on the two roles from the passage.

"Would you please tell the jury, what you saw that night?" Zahra said, winking at Taylor excitedly as he squirmed uncomfortably, his gut still churning.  

"I saw people in the woods..." Quinn said, her voice quivering slightly as she read aloud the words which someone had spoken, more than a hundred years before.

"Let the record show, that Miss Willow, has indicated the defendants." Zahra said, taking far too much fun in the creepy role play, in Taylors personal opinion.

"And I saw..." Quinn said, hesitating briefly as she bit her lip. "Another." She said, glancing up to meet Taylors knowing gaze, before he quickly averted his eyes.

"What do you mean another?" Zahra demanded roughly, smirking as she enjoyed the live action replay of history. "Another person? Do you mean the deceased, whose bloodied corpses were found the next morning?"

"No. I mean..." Quinn said, her eyes widening suddenly as she stared at the page in disbelief. "... him!" She gasped, as the lights flickered suddenly, causing Taylors heart to clench in sudden fear.

"Him who?" Zahra asked, her own eyes widening in surprise, having apparently not read so far on her own. "Miss Willow, who did you see?" She demanded, not noticing the again flickering lights, as Taylor glanced about uneasily.

"Uh, guys..?" He coughed roughly, clearing his throat as he was overcome by a chill deep within his bones, the lights flickering and throwing them briefly into darkness, before returning again.

"Let the record show that Miss Willow is pointing to the back of the courtroom... and screaming." Zahra read eagerly, too focused on her reading to notice their environment. 

"Maybe, we should give it a rest for today..." Quinn said dazedly, as if trying to wake from a particularly vivid dream.

"Miss Willow, please sit down!" Zahra said, her voice rising as the library was thrown into darkness once more, seeming utterly enthralled by the words on the page before her.

"Zahra..." Taylor warned, as the lights flickered, struggling to stay on, before plunging them back into darkness.

"Miss Willow, what are you doing?!" Zahra demanded, her voice rough and twisted, almost as if she were speaking in two times at once.

"Zahra!" Taylor cried, as the lights flickered back on to reveal his friend staring at the ancient ledger with wide eyes, as if watching a scene play out before her.

"Oh my god, someone stop her!" Zahra all but yelled, her distress mounting as she cringed, as if expecting to be struck.

Taylor moved without thinking, flinging the book off the table. The fluorescent lights buzzed around them as the power settled itself, as Zahra blinked and looked up in surprise to see Taylor scowling at her. "You know, generally when the lights start flickering?" He snapped, folding his arms over his chest to hide the shaking of his hands. "That's a good sign you should stop reading aloud from the creepy book!" He scolded quickly, his voice rising in his ire, as he drew in a deep breath and huffed irritably.

"I'm sorry, it was like... I was stuck." Zahra said, and Taylor softened slightly upon receiving her rare and genuine apology. "But," she said, shaking her head as she met his gaze with wide eyes. "Taylor, it was him!"

"Uh, yeah." Taylor groused, his scowl returning at the reminder of the ominous light flickering, shivering as he recalled the similar blackout in the gym the previous morning. "No kidding!"

"No, idiot, I mean back then! The trial!" Zahra said, waving away his frustration with a dismissive gesture. "Creepy entity, lives in the woods, worshipped by a crazy cult..."

"... Redfield..." Taylor murmured, exhaling a shaly breath as his eyes widened in realisation. "And," he said pointedly, exchanging a glance with Quinn. "That would make two mass murders in Westchester, in the same woods, within a hundred years of one another..."

"Okay, I am officially freaked out." Quinn said, pushing away from the computer and scrambling to her feet. "Can we be done for the day?" She asked, gazing at Taylor imploringly as she shivered.

"Definitely." He agreed, grimacing in reluctance as he glanced at the computer and ledger. "But... lets make copies of all this stuff first." He suggested.

"I hate you so much right now, Taylor." Quinn muttered darkly, scowling at him reproachfully. "And don't even try the cute look with me, I am not gonna be swayed by that right now." She added, as Taylor pouted at her.

"What about if I buy you lunch tomorrow?" He offered, wiggling his brows playfully. Quinn huffed and rolled her eyes, sighing as she moved to print off the documents from the computer for him.

"Better be a giant cupcake with it." She complained, as Taylor grinned and helped Zahra collect the ledger, running their findings through the ancient copier and assembling the results into a folder. "Here, Taylor... you should take these home with you." She said, as she added her printouts to the file.

"What, why me?" Taylor yelped, though he reluctantly accepted the folder from her hands.

"Because there's no way in hell I'm taking these creepy ass things home with me." She giggled, holding her arms behind her back as she grinned at him.

"And, thus concludes our spooky scavenger hunt." Zahra said dryly, swinging her bag to her shoulder as Taylor roughly stuffed the folder into his own.

"Emphasis, on spooky." Quinn said firmly, shivering and shaking her head as she grimaced in disgust.

"So, uh... Anybody else ready to go back outside now?" Zahra asked, clearing her throat abruptly as Quinn hopped around the computer and grabbed her bag.

"Yes, please!" She cried, darting away ahead of them. Taylor laughed and rushed after her, leaving Zahra to bring up the rear.

"Oh, man... I am so pleased to be outta there!" He sighed, running a hand through his hair as he stretched in relief.

"Urgh, Taylor, I gotta take a raincheck on all that alcohol you promised me." Zahra complained as she exited, stuffing her phone into her pocket as she scowled at the device. "My dad's making me go home. Early curfew due to bears." She snarked in obvious disgust.

"Oh, hey, no worries." Taylor said, trying to keep his disappointment from his face and voice. "Parents, right?" He chuckled awkwardly, averting his eyes. "Maybe the weekend or something then..?" He offered weakly.

"Definitely, loser." Zahra said, bumping her fist to his shoulder affectionately. "Well, later dorks. Don't get eaten by monsters. Or a bear." She said, as she backed away.

"Gee, thanks." Taylor snorted, waving her off, before he and Quinn turned and wandered down the the road out of town.

"I have to admit..." Quinn sighed, looking up at the sky with a radiant smile. "Even with everything that's going on... its nice to be able to hang out with everyone again." She said, kicking at a pebble on the road.

"Yeah, I know what you mean." Taylor said quietly, thinking of his friends and the easy way they slotted together again, even after such a long time apart. Quinn's phone buzzed, and she pulled it from her pocket, blushing as she read a text message. "Who's got you all flustered?" He asked, grinning at the shy look of happiness on her face.

"Um, Michelle..." She admitted, as Taylors expression fell from his face, carefully replaced by a mask of neutrality. "She uh, she went to the hospital to see me and found out I was discharged already. She was just... making sure I was okay." She said evasively, biting her lip as she looked down at her phone.

"How nice of her." Taylor said stiffly, trying not to spoil the redheads good mood, as her face grinned with a tentative hope and joy which she struggled to contain. "I'm... happy for you." He said awkwardly, as Quinn burst out laughing.

"Oh please, Taylor, say it a little less believably!" She giggled, looking up at him with amusement in her crystalline blue eyes. "You don't have to be such a brown noser, you know." She laughed, as Taylors jaw dropped in feigned offence, and he jostled her gently.

"Look, I know she used to be a half decent person, back before Sean broke down and cut ties with everything he knew..." Taylor huffed, shaking his head as Quinn continued to giggle at him. "I just... I don't see what you obviously do. But, that said, so long as she keeps treating you nicely; she and I needn't have a little chat in my torture dungeon." He said, smirking as Quinn stumbled from laughing too hard.

"Taylor!" She gasped, pausing at the side of the road to catch her breath and wipe tears from her eyes. "You do not have a torture dungeon! You don't even have a basement!" She laughed, shaking her head at his ridiculousness.

"Maybe I built one." Taylor defended lightly, setting Quinn off laughing again. "Got bored last night, dug out a big hole under the house. Gonna hide people I don't like in there." He said, pretending to think for a moment. "Michelle gets a free pass, only because it would make you sad. But one mean comment from her-" he said warningly, snapping his fingers meaningfully.

"Oh, Taylor..." Quinn giggled, wiping her eyes on the backs of her hands. "You really are the limit sometimes." She sighed, shaking her head again as she slowly calmed down and turned thoughtful. "With just how awful she's been recently, I really thought she hated me or something..."

"Yeah," Taylor quipped dryly, huffing as he rolled his eyes. "She was pretty convincing in that regard..." He said scathingly, silently fuming for a moment, before jerking his chin at her phone. "She say sorry again? Or at least explain why she acts that way..?"

Quinn sighed, looking up at him wistfully as they began to dawdle down the road again. "She's not always like that, or at least, she didn't used to be..." She said hesitantly, seeming to choose her words carefully.

"I remember." Taylor said quietly, thinking back to when both Craig and Michelle had been semi decent human beings, before they decided that Sean needing some space to deal with his family issues, was some personal insult to themselves.

"Even when she first got all, popular," she said, sneering at the word and all it stood for. "She used to be so kind and sweet... until..."

"Your illness flared up..?" Taylor guessed, as the redhead hesitated before reluctantly nodding her head.

"Yeah... I passed out one day, much like today." She admitted, grimacing at the memory. "While I was in the hospital, everything with Sean happened; and then, by the time I was able to come back to school, she was just... different." She said, sighing heavily.

"So that note you left..." Taylor pushed, nudging Quinn's arm affectionately as he referenced the previous evening. "You two actually used to be, like, full on friends?"

"Mmhm..." Quinn hummed, her cheeks darkening slightly as she cleared her throat. "Um, best friends, actually." She admitted shyly, as Taylor raised a brow at her curiously.

"So... How did you two know each other?" He asked, tactfully not mentioning Quinn's flushed state.

"We were in scouts togethe-" Quinn began, breaking off to blink in surprise when Taylor burst out laughing.

"Oh, I'm sorry! I just..." He snorted, shaking his head as he recalled his personal nickname from Jake. "Never mind, just ignore me... Carry on?" He asked, a giddy chuckle escaping him as he looked over at Quinn in amusement.

"Riiiight..." Quinn said slowly, eyeing him curiously, before shrugging aside his strange outburst. "Anyway, we lived on the same block. So, when I was actually allowed to go, we would share rides a lot." She laughed quietly, her gaze turning distant as she looked at her feet. "I got picked on a fair bit by the other girls, and she liked having an excuse to hit people, so we just kinda... clicked, I guess." She said fondly, chuckling as she shook away her memories and looked up at Taylor. "Which is weirdly ironic, given how she's been treating me lately..."

"Well, it sounds like you two were pretty close at one point..." Taylor said, guilt gnawing at his heart briefly, as he considered that Michelle had been there for his friend at a time when he himself hadn't.

"Yeah." Quinn said, giggling as she bit her lip and glanced at him from beneath her lashes, her cheeks darkening. "Super close, actually... There was this one year, at summer camp; something I threw a fit about being allowed to go to, until I got my own way... anyway, Michelle and I-"

Quinn's words trailed off, as something huge came tumbling up behind them. Taylor glanced over his shoulder, and came face to face with Craig. "Heh, check it out... It's the freak parade!" The jock called from the drivers seat, as a red convertible rolled up alongside Taylor. Estela lounged in the passenger seat, her gaze narrowing slightly as she met Taylors gaze, before looking away with a scowl.

"Hey, check it out, it's a rolling dumpster fire." Taylor shot back, his irritation rising as he deliberately stepped in between the car and Quinn, gently catching her elbow and encouraging her to walk faster.

However, Craig stepped on the accelerator, matching the cars pace with theirs. "What's the hurry, brah?" He asked, grinning as Taylor rolled his eyes and sighed heavily.

"What do you want?" He finally asked, when the jock continued to follow them both. He debated for a moment, diverting Quinn into the woods, but reconsidered quickly; his mind flashing back to the scene in the library with Zahra.

"Haven't you dorks heard?" Craig huffed, grinning broadly as he glanced at the clearly disinterested Estela. "There's a bear on the prowl. We saw you walking and... thought we'd give you a lift." He said, sniggering to himself.

"Yeah, sure." Quinn scoffed, flashing a glare in the jocks direction, as Estela turned towards the redhead in sudden interest.

"How dumb do you think we are?" Taylor snorted, rolling his eyes as he sighed. "Wait, don't answer that, I don't think I could stand to lose the brain cells, listening to yo-"

"What's the matter?" Craig asked, his fingers tapping against his window frame. "We're all friends here, brah... C'mon, dude, hop in." He said, twitching the wheel towards them.

"Knock it off, Drax!" Taylor growled,  scowling at Craig as he began to laugh raucously. "We already know you're an ass, you don't need to prove it!"

"It's not me, it's the car!" Craig protested, his time heavy with amusement as he sniggered. Quinn gasped as Taylor flinched, the car thumping against his arm.

"Aaah! Knock it off!" She growled, moving to step around Taylor, only for him to hold her back with his arm, keeping her on his far side and away from the car as he flashed her a warning glance.

"Warning; assholes are closer than they appear..." Taylor murmured, discreetly wrapping his hand in his sleeve, before striking out suddenly and slamming his fist into Craig's mirror. Deep cracks exploded across the glass, as Taylor stepped back with a self satisfied smirk.

"Hey," Craig cried, his eyes widening in shock, while Estela's dark gaze seemed to resonate with approval. "What the hell?!" The jock roared, his brake lights flashing red as his doors burst open, both Craig and Estela stepping out onto the road. "This is a brand new car, bro!"

"Aw, damn man... That sucks, cuz look! The mirrors all busted!" Taylor gasped, feigning a shocked expression before grinning and winking quickly. "I guess that in the future, maybe you shouldn't use it to hit people!" He snarked, urging Quinn to back away from him, as Craig stalked towards him.

"Oh, my bad brah..." The jock sneered, a menacing grimace twisting his face. "Would you rather I hit you some other way?" He asked, his large hands curling into tight fists. "Happy to oblige!" He roared, drawing back his fist and smashing it into Taylors jaw before he could react.

"Oof!" Taylor gasped, hitting the asphalt with a heavy thump. He shook his head dazedly, before scowling as he turned his gaze back to Craig, tasting blood in the back of his mouth.

"Taylor!" Quinn cried, rushing to his side and crouching over him protectively "You two better leave Taylor alone, or else!" She snarled, glaring up at Craig and Estela hatefully.

Craig's eyebrows shot up on his forehead, before he began to laugh hysterically. "Or else?" The jock gasped, grinning at her as if she had just told the funniest joke.

"Craig." Estela said calmly, casting Taylor and Quinn a brief glance as she moved to get back into the car. "Lets go." 

"Whaaat?!" Craig exclaimed, his eyes wide in disbelief as the dark haired girl hopped over the door and back into the passenger seat, while Quinn gently helped Taylor back to his feet. "Didn't you see what he did to my car?!"

"And you made him pay for it." Estela replied, picking at a nail dismissively. "Now, let's go." She repeated, as Craig shook his head at her in mute disbelief.

The jock turned back to Taylor, his expression darkening as he gave him a rough shove, ignoring Quinn's disgruntled cry of protest. Taylor felt his temper flare, shoving Craig back without thinking as he glared and once more put himself between the jock and his friend. "Quinn, run." He said firmly, as Craig stared at him in incredulously.

"What?!" She cried, swatting Taylors shoulder roughly. "No! I'm not going anywhere without you!" She insisted, as Taylor scowled at Craig and grit his teeth.

"How bout you move, and we all go our separate ways?" He suggested, his hands balling into fists as Craig shook his head and stepped closer.

"Oh, I'm sorry. Am I in your way?" He sneered, his bulking form looming over Taylor. 

"Craig." Estela called, her tone coloured by frustration, as she glared at the jock warningly. "Get in the damn car. Let's go."

"Yeah, Craigslist, let's go." Taylor sneered, his eyes flicking over Craig in disgust. "Better yet, why don't you just stop being a whiny little bitch, and go tell Sean how butt hurt you are about him choosing to take care of his mom over spending time with you?!" He ranted, stumbling backwards slightly, as Quinn tugged on his arm.

"What?" Craig frowned, pausing as Taylor realised what he'd said. He firmly sealed his lips together, refusing to say anything further about his friends previous years troubles.

"Craig." Estela growled, scowling over the windscreen at the jock, as he cocked his head and continued to frown at Taylor, trying to work out the unintentional hint he'd been given into his former best friends life.

Taylor scowled as Craig remained blocking their path, staring at him intently as if he might somehow get an answer straight from his mind. "Arghh... Just go away and leave us alone already!" Quinn growled in frustration, as the bushes at the edge of the road began to shake, and something huge surged out.

"What the hell?!" Craig cried, finally distracted from Taylors comment, as a dense cloud of crows exploded out if the trees, slamming into him like a fist and smashing his head into his car. "Ngh!"

The crows swarmed in a cyclone of black feathers, tearing at Craig with their beaks and claws, while Estela sat in the passenger seat and glared, her jaw locked with rage. "Aaaah!" Craig hollered, lashing out at the birds with his arms as he scrambled around his car and dove over his door into the drivers seat. 

"I told you to get in the car." Estela fumed, scowling as the birds continued to menace him from all sides, swatting one of them out of the air with an almost negligent backhand, as it flew across her face.

"The hell with this, brah!" Craig cried, his convertible's engine roaring as the car sped off. As soon as it turned the corner, the screaming crows dispersed into the sky with a rush of wings.

"Oh my god!" Quinn gasped, her eyes wide as she stared up at the sky in disbelief, before locking her eyes onto Taylors. "Did you see that?!"

"See what?" Taylor asked innocently, feigning a curious glance around him. "Did I miss something cool again?" He wondered teasingly, as Quinn huffed a startled laugh, before rolling her eyes. "Oh wait, you mean that totally awesome thing just now?!" He cried, running both hands through his hair as he grinned widely. "Holy crap..." He huffed, shaking his head as he lowered his hands and smiled at Quinn warmly. "I've heard of karma, but who knew it was so speedy and efficient?"

"Yeah, those crazy birds showed up right on time." Quinn said, frowning as she shook her head slowly. "It was almost like..."

"Don't say it!" Taylor yelped, slamming his hands over his ears. When he heard only Quinn's exasperated giggle, he uncovered them again with a sigh. "I've heard more than enough about that for one day, thankyou. Now, I don't know about you, but I need clean underwear and some seriously strong goddamn alco-" before Taylor could finish voicing his needs, he was distracted by a small sound from the road. He frowned and looked down to his feet, his eyes widening in surprise at the poor sight he found.

"Awwwk..." Whimpered a crow, as Taylor felt his heart lurch in sympathy for its small huddled form.

"It's the crow Estela smacked..." He murmured, crouching down slowly to try and get a better look a the creature.

"Aw..." Quinn said, gazing down ag the small animal sadly. "I think he's hurt..." She said worriedly, as Taylor held out his hand.

"Com here, little guy..." He said, shuffling closer to the animal himself. He moved to pick the bird up, only to yelp when it suddenly fluffed out its feathers and pecked at his fingers.

"K-kaw!" It cried, as Taylor scowled and gently swatted a finger on its beak in reprimand. "Kaw..." The bird huffed sadly, staggering to its feet, before raggedly flapping off into the trees.

"Poor thing..." Quinn said longingly, gazing after the bird as it disappeared from view. "I hope he makes it back home." She sighed, as Taylor pushed to his feet.

"Come on," he said, wincing as he rubbed his jaw tentatively. "Let's get going." He urged, throwing his arm over Quinn's shoulder as they continued down the road.

They walked in silence for a time, each lost in their thoughts over what had occurred; each trying to convince themselves that the actions of the crows, were entirely spontaneous, and nothing to do with what else they knew lived in the woods. Before he knew it, they'd reached Taylors house, and he blinked in surprise as they paused outside. "Sorry, spaced out there for a bit..." He apologised, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. "Are you sure you're okay? You've been pretty quiet..." He said, eyeing the redhead worriedly.

"I'm fine... but..." Quinn hesitated, her hand gently cupping the sore spot on Taylors jaw,as she gazed up at him sadly. "I wish I could have done more... Back there." She said, tipping her head back down the road in the direction they'd come from. "I wish I wasn't so weak..." She said, tears welling up in her eyes as her voice shrunk to a tormented squeak.

"Hey, hey, little miss badass..." Taylor said softly, brushing her hand from his cheek gently and drawing her into his arms. "Its okay; seriously, you were anything but weak. I mean, did you hear the way you yelled at Craig back there?!" He huffed, rolling his eyes as Quinn buried her face in his chest. "Violence doesn't make you brave, Quinn... You though, you stood up for me even when I was down. And don't forget; you're only gonna get stronger physically now too... Not, that you have to prove anything to anyone. Least of all, jerks like those idiots..." He said, smiling as Quinn finally pulled free of his chest to wipe her eyes with her sleeve. "Oh man, there better be no tears on this top missy, else I am gonna flip my shi-"

"Shut up, Taylor..." Quinn mumbled, chuckling weakly as she drew in a deep breath, and slowly broke out in a small but radiant smile. "And, thankyou."

"Anytime, beautiful." He said warmly, hugging her tightly again, before jerking a thumb over his shoulder. "Sure you don't wanna come in for a bit? Your parents could come pick you up..?" He asked, though Quinn was already stepping back before he had finished.

"I best get back, face the music and all." She sighed, smiling as she looked up at the sky. "Hopefully, I can get my parents to remember that they love each other now... Maybe, they can start over...." She said, clasping her arms behind her back as she grinned at Taylor.

"Sounds like they have an excellent matchmaker to help them on their way." He said, smiling back as he raised a hand and backed away slowly. Quinn giggled, waving back before continuing down the road. He watched her go, before turning and heading up the drive to his house. As he crossed the yard however, something caught his eye. "Whoa... Why is the shed door open?" He demanded, replaying the previous night in his head quickly, just to be certain he hadn't left it open upon his return home.

Cautiously, he head toward the open shed door and peeked around the corner, but he could see nothing inside except for the barbed wire bat he'd made. "Hey, Candy!" He scolded irritably, huffing as he ran a hand through his hair. "Quit leaving the door open!" He demanded, rolling his eyes as his bat remained stoically silent. "... I really need to stop talking to inanimate objects. And myself. Oh god, please don't ever let Jake see me doing this kind of thing..." He groaned, his cheeks immediately flaming in embarrassment. 

"Oh, I almost forgot..." He gasped suddenly, taking the files from the library out of his bag and stepping into the shed to stash them in the filing cabinet. "There. They should be nice and safe here." He hummed happily, reaching for the handle to shut the drawer when he froze instead, upon hearing a scuffling noise, coming from outside.

There's something behind the shed..! He thought, his mind instantly conjuring pictures of the strange bone and vine creatures he'd encountered the night before. He swallowed heavily as he heard sniffing, huffing breaths, and claws testing the walls. Shit, the door! I left it wide open! He thought, his palms sweating as he felt every hair on his body stand on end.

He drew in a deep breath, forcing himself to calm down as he reached for Candy. His fingers curled reassuringly around the handle, when he was suddenly startled by a small blue blur landing in the shed doorway. "Mmrph!" 

"Furball?!" Taylor yelped, releasing Candy and staggering back against the wall to sink to the floor, as the small blue fox bounded through the doorway excitedly; clambering up to lick his face. "Urgh, it was you who pushed the door open before!" He realised, scowling down at the oblivious and unrepentant animal. "Ooh, you... Bad magic ice fox! You scared the crap outta me!"

"Mmrm?" Furball yipped, his head cocking as he perked his ears curiously, finally noticing Taylors frustration, as Lila poked her head around the door.

"Oh gee, Furball!" She huffed, frowning at the small animal as he wagged his bushy tail and butted his head to Taylors chin affectionately. "How many times have I got to tell you to stay out of the neighbours shed, you little monst-" Lila trailed off suddenly, her eyes widening as she saw what Furball was up to. "Oh, Taylor! What are you doing down there on the floor?" She asked, giggling as she strolled forward and offered him a hand. "Everything okay?" She asked cheerfully, her scolding of the small fox forgotten.

"Yeah, I'm fine." Taylor huffed, shaking his head as he petted Furball behind the ears for a moment."I, uh, I thought Furball was a... uh, bear." He said awkwardly, clearing his throat as he reached up to accept Lila's strangely firm, strong gripped hand.

"Heehee, sorry about that." She giggled, tugging Taylor to his feet before scratching the back of her neck guiltily. "I swear, I don't know why he's so obsessed with getting in here!"

"'Cause its mine and he loves me mostest..." Taylor said in a babyish coo, grinning as Furball jumped up to his shoulders and rubbed himself against Taylors cheek affectionately. "Pfft, suck up... You're not fooling me. I know why you really wanna get in here." He snorted, shaking his head as he ruffled Furball's fur and smirked. "This stupid shed is falling apart," he said to Lila, looking around the shed at the various holes and cracks in emphasis. "So, we get a lot of animals inside. Raccoons, squirrels... its practically a zoo in here."

"Heehee..." Lila laughed, before clicking her fingers suddenly. "Ah, you just reminded me... If you're looking for another exhibit, I wanted to ask... How would you feel about watching Furball for awhile? You'd be doing me a huge favour..." She said, frowning at the little blue fox perched on Taylors shoulders.

"Are you going somewhere?" Taylor asked, his brows rising in surprise as Lila nodded sadly.

"Yeah, I've gotta head out of town for about a month to visit my mom." Lila said, grimacing st the thought. "I'd be worried if I thought he went back into the wild after being so pampered... He's real well behaved, as you know. And if you don't want him in the house while you're at school, I could set up a little bed in here for him... Plus he can still get into mischief outside." She said brightly.

"Hmm, it might be nice to have my own little magic ice fox for awhile..." Taylor hummed, scratching the small animals large ear gently. "Well, it's not like he's not over mine a bunch of the time anyway..." He admitted with a fond huff, smiling as Furball yipped and playfully swatted at his fingers with his tiny paws.

"Great!" Lila cheered, a jubilant smole spreading over her face. "Hear that, Furball? You're gonna stay with Taylor for awhile, officially that is... How's that sound?" 

"Mrmmhmm!" Furball purred, nuzzling at Taylors jaw softly, as Taylor laughed quietly and petted his cool blue fur.

"I'll bring the food I give him over before I take off in the morning." Lila said happily, beaming at Taylor as she stepped back towards the door. "Thanks again!"

"Oh, it is all my pleasure." Taylor said, grinning as he walked up to the house with Furball on his shoulder. He waved goodbye to Lila, before heading inside, setting the little fox down once he reached his bedroom. "Hm... you might end up getting bored in here full time, you know..." He said, frowning thoughtfully as he considered having Furball live with him full time. "I wonder..." He murmured, glancing to the clock briefly. Sean and his mom used to have a dog... Maybe he'd let me have some of their old things..? He wondered, narrowing his eyes as he realised his friend still had another hour of basketball practice. "Hmm..." He hummed, pulling out his phone and glancing at Furball with a raised brow. "Well, what do you say? Its gonna be you benefits most..."

"Mmrph!" Furball yipped excitedly, chasing his tail in a circle, before crouching on his front paws and waggling his tail behind him, ready to pounce any second.

"Okay then..." Taylor snorted, dialing the number of a cab. "But you better keep the damn dirt monsters outta my room at night..." He muttered, as he booked a cab and gathered his things together. By the time he'd grabbed everything and prepared some vegetables for steaming when he got back home, the cab had arrived, and he left Furball with firm instructions to guard the house.

He smirked all the way back to school, shaking his head in amusement as he considered the little fox actually doing as he had been told. He paid and exited the cab, before strolling back into the school and slipping unnoticed into the gym. Immediately, his heart sank, as he saw two familiar figures running passing drills. Again. "Oh, boy..." He sighed, creeping through the bleachers to sit as close as he was able. "Psst, hey guys..." He whispered, the pair turning to him in surprise.

"Taylor?" Sean asked, blinking briefly before shaking his head and breaking out in a small, tired smile. "Man, what are you doing here? Miss me that much, or just here to ogle the muscle brigade?" He asked, raising a brow in curiosity.

"Pfft, you know me; where there be scantily clad guys, I... will also be." Taylor said awkwardly, feeling his cheeks heat faintly as Sean snorted in amusement. "Shut up, okay? It sounded totally awesome in my head, it just... came out different." He huffed, scowling at his friend as Sean tried not to laugh. "Anyway, you guys okay?" He asked, wincing as Sean's amusement instantly disappeared, his teammate grimacing as he spread his palms.

"He's been a little distracted, but he won't tell me why." Tom sighed, glancing at Taylor as his expression morphed into one of sympathy. "What, is it this thing with Diego Soto? You guys-"

"Diego's my best friend, yeah." Taylor said quietly, looking down at his feet as he thought of his still unconscious friend. "But if Sean's distracted, I'm pretty sure the reason is more immediate." He said pointedly.

"Man, how can you know me so we-" Sean broke off, upon glancing st Taylor again, his eyes widening as Taylor looked down at his clothes self-consciously, making sure he was dressed and not in some personal nightmare. "Dude, what happened to your jaw?!"

"Huh?" Taylor wondered aloud, reaching up to his jaw and wincing as he encountered the sore area where Craig had socked him hard. "Oh... Uh, minor disagreement with a uh... human bear?"

"Huma-" Sean began, his brow creasing im confusion, before it crumpled in realisation. "Oh man... Are you okay?" He sighed, his eyes filled with apology as he looked at Taylor, who smiled and shrugged dismissively.

"Does it make me look badass?" He asked, trying to lighten his friends mood. "I gotta know how to sell it, should I meet any hot guys who might be curious about it..." He said, snickering as Sean rolled his eyes. "Come on then, Gayle. Spill time. What's eating you? 'Cause it's clearly not in the good way..." He added with a wink.

Sean huffed a half exasperated laugh, running a hand over his short hair briefly as he looked around the hall. "It's..." He paused, swallowing as words failed him. He sighed and nodded up court, where the team captain and the other players were running shooting drills. 

Taylor waited patiently, watching his friends jaw slowly clench tighter as his eyes followed the other players loathingly. "Why don't they let us practice shooting?" He finally demanded, scowling darkly as his frustration finally broke free as Taylor had known it would. "Small forward is my best position."

"You know why." Tom said quietly, shaking his head at his friend and teammates outrage. "Because they have no plans to sub either of us during the game."

"What?" Taylor asked, his eyes widening in surprised realisation, as Sean glared at the far wall mutinously. "You mean ever? Why?!" Tom shrugged jadedly, while Sean continued to fume silently, but his eyes spoke volumes behind his goggles. "Oh my god... You can't be serious. What is this, the fifties? I mean geez, I knew that guy was an asshole but-"

"Look," Tom said, walking over to sit beside Taylor with a reluctant sigh. "Sean only made the team this year, switching from football to basketball; which was good for earning the game some interest, though its faded again since he never actually plays." He explained, shaking his head as he threw a brief glare to the opposite end of the court. "But I've been playing with these guys since junior high... and its the same crap, every year." He sighed, as Taylor tried to work his way through the information.

"But, the NBA has tons of non-white players!" He began, frowning toward the fae end of the court. "How can they think they'll get away with this?"

"Well, those NBA guys still have to deal with racist crap too..." Rom said quietly, as Sean dribbled a ball around their section of the court thoughtfully. "People yelling slurs during games, teammates not passing to them..."

"So in other words, you guys are gonna be effectively benched for the rest of your school lives?" Taylor guessed, scowling at the team captain as he gripped the edge of the bleachers either side of his legs.

Sean grumbled something unintelligible to himself, passing the ball to Tom as he ran a hand over his hair and down the back of his neck. "I don't care too much about it all, to be honest. I mean, I like to play yeah, but... There's more important things, you know?"

"Yeah, but..." Taylor said, glancing between Sean and Tom with a small, sad frown creasing his brow. "Why even let you guys be on the team, if they had no intention of letting you play?" He demanded hotly, grimacing when Tom rolled his eyes and patted him on the shoulder as he got back to his feet.

"Look... people suck." He said simply, passing the ball to Sean only to have it quickly returned again. "If it isn't these jerks, its people like my first girlfriend, who wouldn't stop calling me 'sempai'." He scoffed, as Taylor felt his irritation swell.

"Urgh. People really do suck." He growled, his hand unconsciously rising to his jaw, as he narrowed his eyes. "So, why even bother?"

Tom smiled, tossing the ball back to Sean. "Because we're not quitters." He said simply, as Sean flashed him a grateful look.

"Yeah..." He sighed, a small smile spreading across his face as Taylor shook his head at the pair. Sean tossed the ball back again lazily, but his pass was off, and it instead sailed over Tom's shoulder. 

"Whoops!" Tom huffed, his eyes widening in surprise as he turned to look over his shoulder. "I'll get it." He said, trotting off after the ball, as Taylor and Sean's gaze drifted back towards the other end of the court. Taylor frowned as he looked between his friend and the rest of the team, a nip of foreboding in his gut at the look of irritation which suffused his friends eyes.

For the remainder of the practice, he sat in quiet contemplation, watching his friend move about the court with surprising nimbleness, considering the heavy contact sport he used to play. By the time Sean and Tom had disappeared to go change, he'd come to a decision from his brooding. He waited outside the exit to the gym, and caught the team captain on his way out. "Hey, asshole." He said, jerking his chin at the surprised brunette.

"Urgh, what the hell do you want?" He asked, scowling when he caught sight of Taylor leaning against the wall. "And my name is Ben, queerboy, show some manners at least." He sneered, as Taylor rolled his eyes.

"Oh, please no... Not name calling! You'll hurt my delicate little feelings." He snarked, holding his hands over his chest dramatically, as he snorted and pushed away from the wall, approaching the team captain slowly. "I've heard way worse, from much bigger assholes than you." He said, rolling his eyes again. My parents, included. He thought dryly, before quickly banishing the thought. "Look, you need to stop being such a racist prick and let Tom and Sean play in the game. They're good players, and they might actually be able to help you win for once." He said, trailing behind the team captain as he turned away and began walking around to the rear parking lot. "Sean's best position is small forward, you have to know that, so why not-"

"Hey, if he wants to play more, he should try talking to the Coach." Ben said dismissively, glancing at Taylor with a grimace. "Not send his little fairy friend to beg me for table scraps."

"Sean didn't ask me to do anything, he doesn't know I'm talking to you." Taylor said, huffing in frustration from having to deal with such a creep. "He won't talk to the coach because he doesn't want to sound like he's whining, he's too proud to ask anyone else for help-"

"Wait, so he has no idea you're here, right now?' Ben asked, coming to a stop and turning to Taylor in surprise. "Wow, what, are you just, trying to get in his pants here, or what?" 

"What?" Taylor scoffed, scowling at the other boy in irritation. "No. I'm trying to help my friend because he damn well deserves to be treated better, but he has an asshole for a team captain." He grit out, his hands curling into fists. "Seeing as that's you, you should be able to help him out. For the good of the team, at least."

"I warned you to show some damn manners," ben growled, dropping his bags and taking a menacing step forward, while Taylor glared at him and refused to move. "See, your buddy Sean, he knows his place; and its on the bench." He sneered, smirking as he stalked closer to Taylor, who stubbornly held his ground despite the tingle of sweet he felt on the back of his neck.

"That's bullshit." He scoffed, his eyes narrowing at the other boy hatefully as he looked over him.

"Yep," Ben said, winking gleefully as Taylor glared up at him. "But see, I'm team captain. So, I can pretty much do what I like. I could even kick your buddy right off the team, if I wanted to... And after all the shit you've just given me, that looks a mighty fine idea right about now."

Taylors mouth went dry, panic flaring in his heart briefly, before he forced it away, reminding himself that the captains threat was empty; as he had no genuine reason to kick Sean off the team. "You're really that scared he'll look better than you out there, huh?" Taylor said, forcing a smirk to his face as he gazed up at the team captain hatefully.

"Wow, you really like to push things, huh?" Ben said, laughing and shaking his head. He paused for a moment, before his fist suddenly slammed into Taylors gut, forcing him back a step in surprise.

"Oof!" He huffed, bending slightly from the pain, though he kept his glare on the other boys friendly, smiling face.

"Taylor!" Sean's voice called across the parking lot, followed by the sound of approaching footsteps. "Ben, what the hell?" He demanded, after checking Taylor was okay, stepping between them with a frown. "What's even going on out here?"

"Your little homo pal was being a cocky little shit, so I gave him what he needed to take him down a few pegs." The team captain sneered, watching Taylor with a smirk, as he pushed to his feet. "He's been telling me how I should be leading the team, but see, I'm already doing my part. I'm nice to you, I set an example for the guys. But..."

"But what?" Sean demanded, his hands balling at his side, as he glanced at Taylor with a frown, who shrugged guiltily in response.

Ben theatrically cleared his throat, sneering at both Sean and Taylor. "You're an affirmative action hire, bro." He said, his expression slowly morphing into a hateful scowl.

"I..." Sean began, pausing in his shock as his eyes widened. "That..." He tried again, only for words to once more fail him. Taylor felt his heart pound furiously, his stomach clenching as a fiery rage pounded within him.

"The only reason you're on the team with us," Ben continued, folding his arms over his chest imperiously. "Is because it looks good for photos. I mean, come on... You're a football star, son of the great Marcus Gayle. Everyone knows it, even if you have decided to piss on your own game."

"You asshole..." Taylor snarled, scowling as Sean swallowed heavily, even taking a surprised step back at the mention of his father. "You're just an insecure little prick, you don't know anything abou-"

"Oh dear, such a mouth your little buddy has on him, Sean." Ben tutted, shaking his head sadly. "Guess that's what you get for being such a little cocksucker."

"Leave him alone." Sean said firmly, his gaze hardening as he glared at Ben. "Taylors worth more than you'll ever be."

"Ha, as if that little waster will ever be worth anything." Ben sneered, his nasty gaze cutting right through Taylor as he continued. "Even his own parents can't stand him."

Taylors heart froze, his blood rushing in his ears as he stared at the other boy in horror, the team captain smirking at his obvious pain gleefully. "You know what? If you really wanna help out the team as you're little cockwhore friend seems to think, why don't you do us a huge favour?" He said, stepping closer to Sean and chuckling menacingly. "Quit." He said, turning his back and walking away to collect his things.

Taylor stared vacantly at his turned back, his thoughts lost in a sea of callous names and memories of his parents, their cold indifference to him only growing as the years continued to pass them by. He felt tears in his eyes, heard Sean's growling defense of him, as Tom came up behind him; but he couldn't bring himself to respond to any of it. "Wow, Taylor..." Tom said quietly, exchanging a worried glance with Sean. "I'm sorry, man... Ben has no right to talk to you that way."

"Damn right he doesn't. He's just an egg sucking asshole, he doesn't know shit, Taylor." Sean snarled, as Taylor felt himself slowly crouch and drop to his ass, staring ahead of himself passively as the thought circled in his mind; Someone knows.

"Knows what, Taylor?" Sean asked, crouching before him and forcing him to meet his worried gaze. Taylor blinked, realising he'd been muttering to himself unconsciously. He shook his head mutely, drawing in a deep, shaky breath; his emotions too raw and vulnerable, as Sean's gaze hardened.

The sports star pushed to his feet and turned to head after Ben, glaring at him hatefully for the obvious pain he'd inflicted upon his friend. "Sean, wait!" Tom called, hesitant to follow as he glanced worriedly at Taylor on the floor. "What are you gonna do?!"

"I'm gonna kick his ass!" Sean growled back to him, breaking into a run as he rounded the corner and followed after Ben.

"Oh, crap..." Tom muttered, crouching down and grabbing Taylor by the shoulders, shaking him firmly to get his attention. "Okay, I really need you to get up now, okay? Come on..." He said, pulling Taylor to his feet, and dragging him toward the rear parking lot by his hand. "We gotta stop Sean, okay?"

"Hey, bro!" They heard Sean roar, rounding the corner to see the sports star just raising his fist, before realising that Ben was paralyzed in terror; staring at a dark, shaggy mass which was bearing down upon him.

"Sean!" Taylor cried, snapped out of his inner turmoil by the threat to his friend. He moved to surge forward, but Tom gripped his hand tightly, holding him back. "No! Let me g-!"

"Sean!" Another voice yelled, before a large form collided with the sports star, knocking him away from Ben and the approaching bear.

"Holy fu-" Ben began, as the best lunged at him, yanking him off his feet and dragging him across the ground. "Aaah! Aaaah! Help me!" He cried, as the bear roared and rolled Ben over; hard.

Taylor flinched as he heard something in the team captains arm separate with a sickening pop. "Aaaah!" The bear opened its great jaws, thick saliva dribbling onto Ben's jersey as it panted and heaved above him.

"Hey!" Taylor cried, ripping himself free of Tom's grasp and racing forward before anyone could stop him, waving his arms frantically. "Go away! Leave him alone!" He yelled, as Sean and Tom yelled for him to get away from the hulking brute.

The best paused, releasing Ben and backing away slightly; sniffing at Taylor curiously, as he came to stand over Ben determinedly. After a moment, the bear looked around, huffing as if coming out of a daze. "... Whoa there..." Taylor said more calmly, raising his palms in placation, his heart thundering in his chest. The bear glanced at him again, glossy eyed, before turning and wandering off into the woods; just as Tom caught up to Taylor and yanked him backwards.

"Holy shit, man! You're one crazy bastard, you know that?!" He cried, his eyes wide behind his goggles, as he shook his head in disbelief.

Taylor exhaled heavily, shuddering at his own recklessness. He glanced down at Ben, who was staring at him in disbelief. His gaze hardened, a sneer twisting his face. "Now you owe your pathetic life, to a waster fairy." He said, turning his back on the team captain before he could respond. "Tom... go get help." He murmured quietly to the other boy, who nodded, before his shoes scuffled against the asphalt; as he stumbled back, and took off running. 

Taylor moved over to Sean, offering a hand to help him to his feet, before looking down in surprise at the other body beside him. "What the hell are you doing here?" He asked, his brows raising as Craig pushed to his feet slowly.

"Shit man, that was badass, bro!" The jock cried, his eyes wide as he stared at Taylor, as if seeing him for the first time. Taylor rolled his eyes and ignored him, deciding to wait until the jocks obvious shock had faded before asking again.

Taylor glanced at Sean, their eyes meeting, before they both glanced over their shoulder to the woods where the bear had disappeared. "Well..." Taylor said, swallowing heavily as he looked down at the whimpering team captain, his arm lying useless by his side. He slowly raised his gaze back to Sean, their eyes locking as they traded an unspoken understanding. "Looks like the position of small forward just opened up..." 

Chapter Text

7.

Buckle Up.

Taylors footsteps echoed past an open classroom door, as he wandered down the halls before school, his mind lost to thoughts of the previous evening. I should have just stayed home, then none of it would have happened... He thought guiltily, sighing as he distractedly tugged at his short, spiky red hair. If I hadn't started mouthing off, Ben wouldn't have got hurt... He thought, shaking his head in mounting frustration. Although, if I hadn't, and he had gone straight to his car, then maybe nobody would have been around to help... Oh god, I can't- Taylor huffed in irritation, his mind circling once again in its endless argument with itself. "I hate my head."

"Still talking to yourself, I see?" Sneered a stern voice behind him, and Taylor yelped as he spun around, exhaling heavily in relief as he realised it was Aleister stood behind him. "Good to know that even a small dose of heroism, isn't about to go to your head... as it were." The pale boy chuckled, his piercing gaze running over Taylor in what he almost thought looked like concern. "What brings you here at such an hour?"

"Huh? Oh..." Taylor grimaced, shaking his head to clear out his endlessly looping thoughts as best he could. "I was going crazy at home, just... constantly thinking about it, you know? Needed a change of scenery so I can... apparently think about it all some more." He sighed scathingly, shaking his head in frustration.

"You saved someone's life last night, Taylor." Aleister said, his brow rising in curiosity as Taylor grimaced and averted his deep blue eyes. "You should not be reprimanding yourself for that."

"That kinda depends on the circumstances..." Taylor muttered, glancing up at Aleister reluctantly. "What if I told you I was pretty sure what happened wasn't a freak accident, but actually to do with-"

"Please, do not begin prattling about that nonsense game we played in the woods as children." Aleister drawled, his expression hardening as he frowned down at Taylor. "It is far too early in the morning, for such drivel and-"

"Mr. Rourke?" A voice called from the open classroom, cutting Aleister off as the sound of a chair rolling on the floor briefly, was quickly followed by the sound of approaching footsteps. Aleister glared at Taylor, shoving him out of sight around the corner, before turning back just in time to see Mrs. Montoya poke her head through her door. "You're here early. Did I hear you talking to someone?"

"Ah. Good morning, Mrs. Montoya, and yes, it was a phone call from my aunt Iris." Aleister said stiffly, dipping his head in respectful acknowledgement. "She is very dedicated to my education, as I am sure you've heard. Principal Hall asked me to record a P.A. message about the bear attack." 

Taylor held his breath, frowning I confusion as to why Aleister had hidden him, but obediently trying to keep quiet. The silence between the two in the hallway stretched for an uncomfortable length of time, as Taylor hovered against the wall, fidgeting as quietly as he could.

"Is there something I may help you with, or may I continue?" Aleister finally drawled, his tone crisp and clear in the otherwise silent hall, pointedly clearing his throat as he awaited an answer.

Taylor desperately fought the urge to look down around the corner, instead leaning his head to the wall as Mrs. Montoya's heels could be heard tapping quietly against the floor, the pattern of thoughtful consideration.

"As a matter of fact, yes. There is." She said, the sound of her heels retreating back down the hall. "Please, step inside." She called, as Taylor's breath caught, his heart pounding as he heard Aleister hesitate only a moment, before following her dutifully.

As Taylor heard the door to Mrs. Montoya's classroom close, he peeked around the corner, his brow deeply furrowing in mounting concern for his friend. This is not normal, very not normal. Oh god, why can nobody have anything normal going on? Why do I always have to be around when things are so weird? His mind ranted at him, as he tried to sift through his strained emotions. Is he okay? Should I wait? Should I go? Dammit, what the hell? He swallowed nervously, as he crept back around the corner and bit his lip indecisively, before slowly inching closer to the classroom door.

"Have you thought about what I said on Monday?" Mrs. Montoya asked, her voice faintly muffled but understandable, as Taylor leaned as close to the door as he dared.

"You mean about my having extracurricular activities?" Aleister asked in a bored tone of voice, as Taylor briefly peeked through the glass to catch a glimpse his friends stuff back, and Mrs. Montoya walking away towards her desk.

"Aleister, come now." Mrs. Montoya scolded, her tone irritated as Taylor quickly drew back, not wanting to be spotted so close and quite obviously eavesdropping. He bit his lip, his heart hammering in his chest as he heard Mrs. Montoya's chair roll across the floor. "You know it's not about you having extracurricular activities, its about the amount."

"Mrs. Montoya, I thank you again for your concern, but I assure you it is entirely unnecessary." Aleister sneered, as Taylor was struck by a sudden brainwave. He dug a small mirror from the side of his bag, and aimed it discreetly around the corner, his heart racing as he felt a very super spy-ish thrill pass over him as a shiver. He saw Aleister shaking his head, and trying to back away to the door. "I'm fine." The pale boy sniffed, his gaze still locked forward despite his stepping closer to the door. "I managed perfectly fine with just as much last year, and my grades never once slipped or-"

"That's just it. Your grades are fantastic. You show up to class early, you turn in every assignment on time..." Mrs. Montoya interrupted, and Taylor frowned in confusion, wondering why Aleister being a good student would warrant such hostile behaviour from a teacher. "You do extra credit, you tutor, you ace every essay and exam, and all of that on top of tour student council duties-"

"Are you implying I'm too good a student?" Aleister demanded, sounding equal parts confused and amused by the teachers glowing reference to his impeccable record.

"What concerns me," Mrs. Montoya continued, as Taylor tipped his mirror slightly to catch sight of her pinching the bridge of her nose. "Is the recent change in your behaviour."

"Nonsense, my behaviour is the same as it has ever been." Aleister said dismissively, his irritation plain from his tone of voice. Taylor swallowed again, his mouth suddenly dry as he glanced down the hall, feeling as if he were somehow intruding on something far more personal than he'd first assumed. "I assure you, my only frustra-"

"Tell me," Mrs. Montoya interrupted, as Aleister's shoulders tensed in irritation. "Are you having trouble sleeping lately?" Taylor fought to keep from scoffing, his mind racing with memories of the past few nights. The unnerving texts from Diego, the conversation they'd had about rescuing him, actually rescuing him; and of course, the thing with the bear the previous evening.

If Aleister is having anything but trouble sleeping, then I'm gonna call him out as an unnatural automaton. He thought, shaking his head a moment, before frowning, noticing that Aleister had turned unusually quiet and was shifting restlessly from foot to foot.

"Perhaps, feeling sudden bouts of anxiety?" Mrs. Montoya pressed on, her head dipping slightly as she tried to catch Aleister's gaze. Taylors pulse raced in his ears, concerned that another of his childhood friends seemed to be in trouble. "Or unsteady hands?" She asked pointedly, her eyes lowering suddenly. Taylor frowned, unable to adjust the angle of his mirror to show Aleister's hands, without revealing himself. However, from the way Aleister pointedly moved his arms behind his back, Taylor assumed there was a reason for the  teachers comment. He watched was Aleister determinedly kept his attention locked onto Mrs. Montoya's, his back rigid as he refused to look away from her gaze.

"I've seen this before." She said quietly, her gaze softening with sympathy, as Taylor shook his head and rolled his eyes; knowing she would only irk him further with such an emotional plea. "I've seen bright students, let their ambition out-space their available time and energy... And when those students find themselves overwhelmed, I've seem them turn to certain... study aids." She said knowingly, as Taylors eyes widened at the implication.

Holy shit... He thought, blinking rapidly to try and make sense of what he was hearing. Aleister..? Really..? No... He thought, frowning as he shook his head. She's gotta be wrong. He thought firmly, though his certainty was shaken, when Aleister himself seemed lost for words.

"I..." The pale boy began, audibly swallowing loud enough that Taylor could hear it from where he hid in the hallway.

"Aleister, have you been taking anything to help yourself focus?" Mrs. Montoya demanded, a scowl lighting her face, as she stared hard at the clearly uncomfortable, pale boy before her. "Maybe, to get a bit of an edge over the other students?"

"I-I don't know what you're talking about." Aleister sneered, apparently regaining his wits as he sniffed derisively at the teacher.

Taylor tensed, glancing down the hallway as the lights flickered, a sense of ominous foreboding in his gut as he looked back at his mirror to see Mrs. Montoya frowning at Aleister, while tapping her fingers atop her desk. "If that's the case," she said finally, her eyes narrowing slightly as she peered at Aleister intently. "You won't mind if I set a meeting with your aunt and the principal." She said, levelling him with a hard glare. "This is a serious matter, Aleister. If we find evidence of wrongdoing, it may be grounds for suspension."

"Suspension?!" Aleister exclaimed, spluttering indignantly as he stared at Mrs. Montoya in disbelief. "Preposterous! I cannot have such a permanent stain upon my record!" He insisted hotly.

Taylor watched in horror as Mrs. Montoya uncapped a pen, reaching for her desk drawer. "It will all go on your record." She confirmed, throwing him a disapproving glare. "Every detail. For every university, and prospective employer to see... Though I suppose, being heir to the great Rourke International, that doesn't really make a lot of impact to you, does it?"

"My heritage and upbringing have nothing to do with our current situation." Aleister growled fiercely, his shoulders trembling in Taylors mirror. "If you were not so adamant you were right, then perhaps we might be able to discuss it properly, rather than sling threats around like neanderthal buffoons."

Mrs. Montoya paused briefly, before shaking her head and looking at Aleister sadly, failing to take the bait. "I'm sorry, Aleister... But this is a necessary evil. Some day, you'll understand that I did this for your own good."

Taylor shook his head in disbelief as Mrs. Montoya stared at Aleister while opening her drawer, the pale boy seeming to stiffen suddenly. "Look out!" Aleister yelled abruptly, startling Taylor enough that he almost dropped his mirror.

"Hmm?" Mrs. Montoya hummed curiously, looking down at her desk drawer with a frown, only for her eyes to widen in fear; recoiling back as something lunged out from inside. "Aaah!"

"Oh my god-" Taylor gasped, turning the corner quickly as Mrs. Montoya tripped over her chair, tumbling and scrambling backwards, as it came for her.

"Get it off me!" She screamed as Aleister moved to help her, trying to throw her chair aside as the hissing and slithering, snake struck, its bone white fangs bared. "Aah-aaaaaah!"

"Mrs. Montoya!" Aleister roared, finally picking the chair up and throwing it across the room, snatching a broom from the corner behind the teacher and swatting the snake clear across the classroom. "Get away from her, you vile serpent!" He snarled, moving toward the teacher worriedly. 

Taylor approached the door and flung it open, quickly striding through and approaching the desk. "Is she okay?" He asked, moving around the edge and closer to them.

"I'm just trying to find out, you idiot!" Aleister snarked, crouch beside the teacher and touching her shoulder gently. "Mrs. Montoya, are you okay?!" He demanded urgently, as she floundered on the floor.

".... bit me..." She gasped, her eyes wide as she stared up at Aleister in disbelief. "... bit me, my chest, I n-need a doctor..." She panted, as her eyes rolled back in her head, and she fell unconscious.

A flicker of movement caught Taylors eye, and he turned to see the glistening body of the snake vanish through the open door. "Oh no! I have to go catch it!" He gasped, moving to follow it.

"No, Taylor, you need to go home. Now." Aleister said quickly, his phone already in his hand and pressed to his shoulder as he glared at Taylor, who turned to him in shock. "You've been involved in enough police incidents already this week, if they arrive to find you here, they're going to begin suspecting you're involved." He insisted, pausing briefly to bark sharply into his phone, before hanging up. "Taylor, go home. Stay there an hour, or all day; I don't care. Just do not be present here when the police arrive, and do not speak to anyone about this." He said, quickly jerking his head toward the door with a scowl. "Now go already."

Taylor hesitated, worried for his friend, but Aleister's increasing scowl had him reluctantly turning and hurrying away, his mind racing so fast he barely noticed where he was going. It wasn't until he'd reached his own driveway, that he even had the willpower to conjure up a single coherent thought; How the hell did that thing get into her desk..? Silently answering his own question, when his eyes drifted over to the woods behind his home.

His attention was stolen suddenly, when he heard an odd sound coming from his shed, and he swallowed heavily, recalling the awful scene he'd just witnessed. "Furball..?" He called tentatively, licking his lips as he slowly approached the small, ramshackle building. "Is that you again, little buddy?" He asked hopefully, wishing he would receive a bark or yip in response. Instead he found himself cautiously creeping forward, pressing his ear against the door. A series of muffled rattles, squeaks and thumps came from inside. "Please... just, be a rat or something and not a monster. Or a snake. Or... Actually, just be the wind or something..." He pleaded, his throat thick from the dense emotions he felt. He steeled himself, silently counting to three as he wrapped his hand around the handle, then shoved the door open quickly. "Don't kill me!" He yelped, cringing expectantly.

"Grakk!" Cawed a crow, as Taylor made a very undignified squeak, eternally pleased there was nobody present to hear him.

"Aaah!" He gasped, stopping in his tracks as he stared down at the angry little bundle of feathers on the work table. "Wait a second..." He huffed, his heart racing as he frowned and took a few steps closer; the tiny crow hopping backward, one of its wings dragging awkwardly.

"Awkk!" It grumbled pitifully, eyeing him almost guiltily as it shuffled about the work table, its beady eyes distrustful.

"Are you the crow Estela smacked?" He choked, his eyes widening in surprise as he looked around the shed. "How'd you get in here?" He asked, slowly taking another step forward as he held out his hand.

The crow puffed up its feathers, glaring at Taylor suspiciously. "It's okay, little buddy." He said, smiling gently. He hummed thoughtfully, toying briefly with the idea of making bird like sounds, before deciding his quota for looking ridiculous had already been fulfilled that morning. Instead, he dug into his schoolbag and found a small bag of trail mix, raising it before him and jiggling it. "Hungry?" He asked, smiling when the crow seemed to perk slightly.

"Grawk!" It crowed, as Taylor opened the bag and tipped some of the trail mix into his hand, holding it out patiently. Cautiously, the bird hopped forward, and snatched a peanut out of his hand. "Awk!" It cawed, cocking its head at Taylor as it ruffled its feathers. Finally, as if having finally made up its mind, it hopped forward into the palm of his hand.

"Oh yeah, Taylor the wild animal tamer." Taylor snickered, grinning fondly as he carefully reached up to stroke the birds sleek head. He heard a rustling, and turned to see Furball approaching curiously. "Hey Furball!" He said, gesturing to the bird in his hand. "Looks like we've got a new friend, huh?" He said, pausing to raise a brow at the fox. "No trying to eat him, okay?" He insisted, as Furball slowly padded closer to better examine the tiny ball of feathers in Taylors hands.

"Mrrm?" The little blue fox yipped quietly, turning his wide eyes towards Taylor, his large ears perked curiously.

"Careful, he's just a baby..." Taylor said gently, as Furball gently touched the baby crow with his snout, sniffing him with intense interest. The crow puffed up its feathers, pecking him on the nose.

"Grak!" It cawed, clearly disgruntled by the foxes avid interest in him.

"Mrmm!" Furball barked, hopping backwards and sneezing. Taylor laughed, ruffling his ears fondly with one hand, while gently brushing his thumb over the crows wing with his other.

"It's okay, he did the same thing to me the first time we met." He said, huffing when he realised it hadn't even been twenty four hours ago. "I'm sure he didn't mean it." He said, setting the crow down on the work table again, a small pile of trail mix at his feet.

He set about making a small nest for the bird, hoping to make him comfortable for the duration of his stay. Once he was finished, he set it on top of the dusty filing cabinet, and moved to carefully examine the small birds wing, before gently setting him in his new nest. "There we go..." He hummed, stroking the birds head gently. "You should be nice and safe up there." 

"Grack!" It crowed, besting its wings briefly, before seeming to settle down and begin making itself comfortable, its small head turning and cocking curiously as it examined its new home.

"I should probably give you a name, huh?" Taylor said thoughtfully, frowning as he narrowed his eyes in contemplation. "How about... Malatesta?" He asked, laughing as the crow shook its head quickly. "Okay, okay, how about Mal for short?" He chuckled.

"Kee!" The crow cawed, flapping it's wings lightly in what Taylor decided to assume was acceptance.

"You like it now, huh?" He cooed, laughing as the bird brushed its beak along his fingers. "Good." He said, sighing as he glanced at his watch and realised he'd killed over an hour already, and should probably head back to school.

Oh god, I hope Mrs. Montoya and Aleister are okay... I really hope that snake didn't go back. He thought, his heart heavy with guilt as he recalled everything he'd seen that morning. And god, Aleister taking study aids? We're really gonna have to talk about that sometime... He thought disconcertedly, sighing as he grabbed his bag and turned to leave, only to spot a crumpled piece of paper on the table, right where his new feathered friend, Mal had been sitting.

With a curious frown, Taylor moved back to the work table, picking up the old letter to examine. "Did you bring this here, Mal?" He asked absently, glancing at the baby crow as it seemed to cackle in agreement, while smoothing out the crumpled paper. Once it was legible, he carefully began to read aloud. "Dear E.B, I write to you from a car train bound over the Rockies, a feat of modernity so spectacular, I reel to conceive of it... Ha, oh man, I'd love to see what this guy would make of mobile phones..." Taylor huffed, rolling his eyes at the long winded speech. 

"Alas, my mind is preoccupied by my destination, one... Westchester Oregon!" Taylor gasped, bringing the paper closer to his face, as his hands began to tremble. "... and the curious package that started me on this expedition, when it appeared in my university inbox; a photograph of dark trees... an inhuman silhouette... and five, hastily scribbled words..." Taylor read, swallowing heavily as his eyes widened, his heart hammering as his throat constricted; his voice turning to a harsh whisper, as he strained ro continue speaking. "It lives in the woods." He choked, pausing to try and recompose himself, calming his rapid breathing as best he could. "The other faculty," he continued in a rough croak, coughing to clear his throat as best he could. "... and your father, think me mad to chase such nonsense. Perhaps they are right. Perhaps they've always been right. Or perhaps, this time I shall prove them all wrong... Goddard E. Filleus, September twenty ninth... Eighteen seventy one." 

Taylor shivered, quickly pinning the letter to the back board of the work table, before wiping his hands on his trousers; shaking his head at the disquieting foreboding churning in his gut. "Eighteen seventy one..." He murmured again, frowning at the familiar sounding timeframe, as he glanced up the baby crow. "Where the hell did you find this, Mal?"

"Awk?" The bird chittered, cocking its head at him curiously, before beginning to preen his feathers disinterestedly.

"Well," Taylor sighed, running a hand through his hair as he tried to absorb everything he'd seen and learnt over the morning so far. "I guess it'd be weirder if you did answer." He huffed, scratching his cheek briefly and wincing as he caught his sore jaw, before finally shaking his head and swinging his bag a little higher on his shoulder. "Well, be good. I'll check on you after the game." He said, carefully scratching the birds head as he settled into his new nest happily. 

Taylor looked over at Furball, eyeing the bird with his head cocked curiously, his large ears perked as his tail slowly swished from side to side behind him. "No trying to eat Mal." He warned, laughing when Furball sniffed in obvious disgust and hopped down off the work table, stalking out of the shed with his tail in the air. Taylor smirked as he followed him out the shed, closing the door and crouching to pet the foxes ear briefly. "You be good too. See you soon." He said, sighing as he pushed to his feet, and slowly began making his way back to school.

The day went surprisingly quickly, with little chance for him to speak to any of his friends, let alone Aleister; who was at least five times busier than anyone else. He was exhausted by the end of the school day, his nerves shot from constantly jumping any time someone called his name. Although there had been a very brief announcement about Mrs. Montoya, not much had really been revealed about what had happened. It had been mentioned that she had been injured, but that thanks to the help of their trusty class president, the teacher was in stable condition in the hospital. Estela was noticeably distracted throughout the day, and Taylor almost felt as though he wanted to console her, but he trampled the feeling quickly; her desire to be alone more than palpable in her behaviour, even going so far as to avoid Craig and Michelle.

Despite his exhaustion however, he joined the crowd after school, heading to watch their team play in the first basketball game of the season. He spotted Rebecca outside the front doors, with the rest of the cheer squad around her. "Hey, Becca!" He called, relieved to see a friendly face after such a long day.

"Hi, Taylor!" She called back, smiling as she slipped away to chat with him briefly. "Excited to watch the Westchester Wolves totally destroy the Anderton Cougars?" She asked, as Taylor huffed and winked at her.

"You know it!" He said, trying to inject some enthusiasm into his tired tone. His eyes flashed with amusement, as he nudged her playfully and lowered his voice. "But I'm more excited to watch you."

"Pftt, no ya not." She snorted, shoving him back with a grin. "If my brother were prancin' around, pullin' of incredible feats of acrobatics and lookin' super cute while doin' it however..." She said knowingly, raising a brow at his sheepish expression.

"Heard about that, did you?" He snickered, grinning as Rebecca rolled her eyes and playfully punched him in the arm with her pom pom. "Hey, you freakishly strong handed person, lay off the rest of us mere mortals!"

"Oh hush, ya big baby." She huffed, smirking at him fondly. "If it were anyone else keep flirtin' so determinedly with my brother, I'd have full on decked the cocky little fucker by now." 

"Well, he oughtta stop being so goddamn good looking and charming, then!" Taylor protested, snickering when Rebecca rolled her eyes. "Man, I thought it was the older sibling supposed to be all over protective..." He groused, grumbling to himself as Rebecca laughed quietly and shook her head at him. "So, miss overprotective cockblocker," he said, clearing his throat as he glanced around briefly. "Have you seen Sean at all today? How's he doing?"

"Based on his face durin' warm ups..?" She hummed thoughtfully, her lips twitching in amusement. "I'd say he's runnin' on, like, seventy percent excitement... and  thirty percent pure terror." She chuckled, covering her mouth as she glanced around the crowd guiltily.

"Damn..." Taylor sighed, clicking his tongue thoughtfully as he wrapped his arms around his torso. "He's probably feeling a lot of pressure right now, stepping in for Ben and all."

"Urgh, what happened to Ben was so freaky." Rebecca said, shivering as she grimaced and cast the school grounds a distrustful glance. "How'd a bear just wander onto campus? And you!" She said, her eyes widening suddenly as she jabbed him with her pom pom again.

"Uh, ow..." Taylor complained, rubbing the abused spot on his arm as he pouted at her reproachfully. "What the hell was that for?"

"Ya charged at a bear! Ya idiot!" She cried, swatting at his shoulder again as Taylor winced and tried to dodge her. "Ooh, wait til I tell my brother 'bout this! See how ya flirtin' goes then..." She threatened, though Taylor got no chance to protest as she gasped suddenly, her hand resting on his arm. "Oh my god, and did ya hear about Mrs. Montoya?"

"Uh, not... not really, I mean, you know..." Taylor began, shifting awkwardly as he averted his gaze. "Everyone's been talking about it, so hard not to hear but, I don't... I mean I didn't-" he babbled, feeling his cheeks turn warm as Rebecca's brow furrowed at him. "Oh, shit..." He muttered, as her expression darked, glancing around quickly before grabbing his arm and dragging him away from the crowds.

"What the hell, Taylor?!" Rebecca demanded in a rough hiss, scowling at him suspiciously. "Spill, right now or I swear to all that is painful, I will make you; right before I ruin every chance you have with my goddamn brother!" She whispered furiously.

"Uh..." He hedged, shrinking beneath the fiery redheads hard glare. "I don't... really know anything, I just... was here, briefly?" He muttered awkwardly, grimacing as he shuffled his foot guiltily.

"What, when?" Rebecca frowned, before her eyes widened in sudden realization. "Oh my god, did you see-?!"

"Shut up!" He hissed, scowling as he looked around them, before hunching his shoulders and trying to make himself unnoticeable. "Look, I didn't see much, Aleister made me go home, he said it would look bad; given how I've been at so many weird scenes lately. He tried to help her, but by the time I got there... I don't think there was much anyone could've done at that point. It was my fault the snake got away." He sighed, running a hand through his hair. "They might have been able to do more, if I hadn't left the door open and let it-"

"Taylor, if it hadn't got away then Aleister might have been hurt too..." Rebecca said quickly, cutting off his guilt and frustration. "And who knows how long it might've taken for them to be found..?"

Taylor grimaced, looking up at her uncertainly. "... I don't think that it would have hurt Aleister." He finally admitted quietly, glancing away quickly as Rebecca bit her lip.

"You don't think..?" Rebecca began, glancing around before drawing them deeper into the shadows, away from the crowd. "I mean, could they be related?" She whispered quickly, her grey eyes silently pleading for him to tell her she was wrong. "Like, what are the odds of two crazy animal attacks happenin', within twenty four hours?"

"Technically..." Taylor hedged, scratching the back of his neck guiltily. "There were three." He admitted, quickly telling Rebecca about the crows which had driven off Craig and Estela the day before. "But one of them is super cute, and he's got this little nest... in my, uh, shed..." He concluded, trailing off as Rebecca stared at him, her brow furrowing.

"This can't be a coincidence, right?" She finally sighed, looking up at him in reluctant resignation. "It's got to be Mr.-"

"Becca!" Michelle called, her hands on her hips as she raised a brow at her and Taylor, huddled close together and half obscured by shadows. "C'mon, the games about to start!"

"Oh, uh... I'll be there in just a minute!" She called, her eyes wide as she took a step back from Taylor.

"Okay..." Michelle drawled, flicking her ponytail over her shoulder with a too innocent smile which made Taylors hands curl into fists. "Be late if you want, but Coach Tanner told me to tell you that you're on thin ice."

Michelle skipped away, as Taylor narrowed his eyes and scowled at her back, growling quietly in irritation. He looked back at Rebecca with a sigh, to find her staring after the blond, chewing anxiously at her lower lip. "It's okay." He said gently, nudging her toward the cheerleading team. "We can talk tomorrow." He assured fondly, nudging her forward again. With a grateful nod and a relieved smile, Rebecca hurried toward the gym. Taylor began to follow her, when a strong hand clamped down on each of his shoulders.

"Hey, Taylor, long time no see." Estela said lowly in his ear, causing an unpleasant shiver to travel up his spine.

"Not long enough..." He muttered, trying to jerk his shoulders free as he half turned to scowl distrustfully between Craig and Estela.

"Aww, c'mon bro!" Craig huffed, grinning as he stepped back with his palms raised in placation. "We missed you." He said, his eyes flashing with hatred, as he pointedly showed off the dark scratches which covered his arms and face.

"H-hey! Let go!" Taylor yelped, struggling against Estela's grip on his shoulders. He glanced at the dark haired girl, the scar across her eye seeming ominously more prominent as she glared at him with fury burning in her dark eyes.

"Craig, go ahead. Taylor and I are gonna have a little catch up." She said quietly, as Taylor swallowed and felt himself fall into her intense glare.

"But we were gonna talk about what he did to my car!" Craig protested, looking over at Estela in frustration, as her gripped tightened painfully on Taylors shoulders, causing his stomach to fill with dread.

"I don't know what to say, I guess those birds just didn't appreciate your tacky hunk of junk on wheels." Taylor said, half hoping to goad Craig into a fight; anything to avoid the intense grip and gaze of the dark haired girl before him.

"Hey-" Craig began, moving toward him with a scowl beginning to furrow his brows.

"Craig!" Estela barked, turning her glare on him as her grip on Taylors shoulders grew tight enough to make him whimper. Craig paused, meeting Estela's gaze before drawing back a few steps, throwing Taylor a mutinous glare before turning away to deter other students from approaching.

"Now," Estela said quietly. "Why don't you tell me what you saw this morning?" She demanded, her hard gaze meeting his deep blue eyes knowingly.

Oh, shit... Taylor thought, grimacing as he stubbornly bit his lip. What can I say? If she heard me already... He cleared his throw suddenly, wincing as Estela squeezed his shoulders warningly. "Alright, alright, already!" He said, raising his hands awkwardly to show his surrender. "Look, I didn't see anything! Okay? I was out in the hall, and the door was closed. I rushed to help as soon as Aleister tried to warn her, but... It struck so fast. It was like, it was possessed or something; entirely intent on-"

"What else did you see?" Estrla demanded, shoving Taylor against the wall as she scowled, narrowing her eyes accusingly. "There must have been something else, tell me what you saw! Tell me what he did to her!" She fumed furiously, as Taylors brows rose in shock.

"What?! No! Nothing!" He protested, shaking his head urgently as hebswueezed her hands to try and make him release her. "I swear, he didn't! Aleister only tried to help, honestly, if he hadn't been there-"

"What?" Estela growled, her brows furrowing as Taylors babbling paused briefly, as he frantically looked around for help, but found only Craig watching them; until something caught his eyes behind the jock. 

The idea struck hard and sudden, and Taylor forced a cocky smirk to his face as he raised his eyes over their shoulders. "Check out all those crows!" He said, causing Craig's eyes to widen, as he spun to look around desperately. Taylors grin widened, as he nodded toward a nearby tree, which was dotted with dozens of feathered black silhouettes. "Kinda creepy, right? It's like they're watching us." He said pointedly, as Craig began to scratch nervously at the claw marks which marred the back of his hands.

Estela narrowed her eyes at Taylor, utterly unmoved by the crows or Craig's sudden desire to move away somewhere that wasn't where they were. He swallowed heavily, meeting her dark gaze for a pregnant pause, before she roughly shoved him against the wall again; making him wince and hiss in pain, before releasing him. "You're an idiot." She said derisively, her eyes raking over him briefly, before she shook her head and stalked away with Craig right behind her. In his rush, the jock almost crashed into Jake, as he walked over from the parking lot.

"Whoa," the pilot huffed, skillfully dodging the large boy, as he frowned after them. "Where're those two headin' in such a damn hurry?" He asked, turning to see Taylor sagging against the wall, a relieved chuckle escaping him.

"Who cares, as long as it's away from here?" He chuckled, a faraway grin lighting his face as his relief over the bullies hasty retreat, left him feeling light and giddy.

"Huh, I'm sensin' ya ain't exactly friends..." Jake said, his brow creasing as he ran his eyes over Taylor, locking onto the bruise on his jaw. 

"Wow, what gave it away?" Taylor snickered, grinning wider as Jake moved toward him, his stomach clenching for reasons entirely unrelated to his previous fear and dread.

"Seein' ya pinned like that kinda had me wonderin', Boy Scout." Jake snorted, raising a brow when Taylor huffed and rolled his eyes. "But, uh, clearly ya don't need my help, so..." He said, clearing his throat as he finally stepped up beside Taylor.

"Oh, I don't know about that, Top Gun." Taylor snickered, holding out his hand. After a brief pause where Jake merely stared at the offered appendage, he huffed and rolled his eyes, pulling Taylor away from the wall. The pilot smirked as he released him, not noticing Taylors suddenly two shades darker, burning hot cheeks; or the smug grin he wore, as the two of them walked through the doors to the gym together.

Taylor felt his fingers twitch at his side, though he couldn't tell if it was from excitement or nervousness, as he and Jake found themselves seats among the crowd of rowdy Westchester High fans. "So, what happened to Big Guy and Katniss back there?" Jake asked, leaning closer to be heard over the noisy crowd, much to Taylors delight. "They look like they took a bag of angry cays to the face, him especially."

"Crows, actually." Taylor said lightly, trying not to laugh at Jake's obvious surprise. "I think they're still a little freaked out about it." He hummed thoughtfully, and entirely too innocently.

"Heh, this whole damn place seems freaked out, if ya ask me." Jake huffed, running a hand through his hair as he looked around the crowd briefly.

"Uh..." Taylor coughed, his amusement fading as a tickle of nervousness made itself at home in his gut. "What do you mean?" He asked, hoping he sounded nonchalant and intrigued.

"Dunno, just gettin' a weird vibe..." Jake huffed, frowning as he looked down at the court, while Taylor bit the inside of his cheek and firmly told himself that now was not the time to be wondering what the other mans hair would feel like tangled around his fingers. "Like, somethin's wrong... but no one wants to admit it." The pilot said, startling Taylor from his inappropriate thoughts as he turned his cerulean gaze back towards him. 

"Uh..." He coughed, trying his hardest to suppress a shiver. He glanced up at Jake, grateful when the pilot didn't seem to have noticed his reaction. "So, Jake..." He said, smirking as he unsubtly changed the subject. "Do you come to all the games..?"

"Eh, I try to come to one or two if I happen to be free or near town..." He said, shrugging his shoulder lightly. "Cheer for Becca, maybe say hi to my old shop teacher while I'm at it." He hummed, before snorting and glancing sideways at Taylor. "It's also pretty much the only thing to do around here."

"That's harsh." Taylor pouted, his eyes flashing with amusement. "And, also... One hundred percent true." He snickered, looking down at the base of the bleachers, where he spotted Rebecca standing with the rest of the cheer squad.  

Jake waved, a soft grin on his face as she smiled and stuck her tongue out at him. "Heh, brat..." He scoffed, shaking his head fondly.

"You guys are adorable." Taylor said, nudging Jake's elbow playfully. The pilot snickered, spreading his palms briefly before sighing and gesturing to himself.

"What can I say, we try." He said, chuckling quietly when Taylor shoved his elbow again. He smirked, gesturing down to the court with his chin. "Looks like the games about to start." He said, and Taylor followed his gaze to see the two teams were getting into position for the jump ball.

"Yeah! Go wolves!" He called, as his schools team took possession, raising a brow at Jake's sudden coughing fit. "... You okay there, Top Gun?"

"Yeah, yeah, just... Nothin'." Jake said, clearing his throat and focusing his attention onto the game again. After a moment, Taylor turned back too, pushing aside the other mans strange reaction to watch the game himself.

He watched as the Westchester player drove down the court, only to soon become trapped by an Anderton High defender. "Drew! Over here!" Sean called, waving his arms to show the utterly free space around him. The other player looked over at Sean, then turned away again. He tried to get past the defender, but ended up losing the ball instead. "Are you kidding me?!" Sean's frustrated growl could be heard even over the crowd, as he ran a hand over his short hair.

"What the hell?" Taylor demanded, scowling down at the other player, as he shuffled away. "Sean was wide open!" He growled, as the Cougars scored an easy goal. He shifted in his seat, shaking his head at the other players stubbornness and stupidity, but telling himself the game would surely improve now the ball was back in his teams possession. However, he felt his heart begun to sink, when he noticed the pattern which was slowly developing.

"Is it just me, or is nobody passin' to ya buddy down there?" Jake asked quietly, as he frowned down at the court.

"It's definitely not you..." Taylor sighed, biting his lip as he gazed down at Sean, as his friend shook his head in frustration. Things did not improve as the game went on, and by the middle of the second quarter, the Wolves were down by ten points.

"Booooo!" Craig sneered, cupping his hand around his mouth as he yelled down to the court. "Someone score already!"

"Come on, Wolves!" Rebecca cheered, trying to inspire the teams moral. "You can do it!" She cried, waving her pom poms enthusiastically.

"Urgh, this blows." Michelle huffed, sitting on a bench and propping her chin on her hands, as she watched the game in boredom.

Taylor ignored the blonde, watching Sean grow steadily madder, as his team continued to refuse to pass to him. His friend Tom watched from the bench, his shoulders slumped. "Urgh!" Taylor growled suddenly, shaking his head in disgust as he gripped the bleacher on either side of his knees. "I can't believe this... I'm bout to go down there and slap someone!" He threatened darkly, as Jake huffed beside him.

"Ya ain't the only one, Boy Scout..." Jake replied, watching curiously as the Wolves continued to snub their teammate. "Steve Rogers looks about ready to blow a gasket." He said, his eyes narrowing thoughtfully.

Taylor worried his lip, as he watched Sean down on the court, as he got into a defensive stance; tracking the ball with the intensity of a shark, his face flushed with anger. Taylor could hear his low chanting, now that the crowd had tapered to hushed whispers and snide comments. "Come on... come on!"

One of the Anderton players made a cross court pass, and Sean seized his chance; launching forward and snatching the ball out of the air, twirling away gracefully. "Ha!" Sean cried, dodging around another Anderton player quickly.

"Yes!" Taylor cried, jumping to his feet in excitement, a huge grin blazing to life across his face. "Go, Sean, go!" He called, his hands cupped around his mouth to project his voice. He bounced on his feet as he watched Sean fly down the court, heading for the three point line, defenders of the opposing team scrambling to catch up to him. He launched the ball towards the hoop, just as an Anderton player slammed into him from the side.

"Oof!" Sean huffed, stumbling in surprise but not falling, instead punching the air as the ball swished through the basket.

"Woo!" Tom cried from the bench, launching to his feet like much of the crowd and cheering loudly when the referee awarded Sean a free throw, which he sank easily. 

"Score!" Taylor cried, as he bounced on the balls of his feet and cheered louder than anyone, laughing as he cupped his hands around his mouth as the crowd roared around him. "Wooooo! I love you, Sean Gayle!" He yelled, quickly followed by several other voices calling the same thing.

Taylor laughed as Sean found him in the crowd, pointing at him and winking as he flashed a brilliant smile. "Hell yeah!" He called back to Taylor, before skipping backward to follow his team off the court, when the referee signalled halftime. 

Taylor did an encouraging shuffle like dance as the cheer squad jumped up to do their routine, waving both hands over his head like pom poms as Rebecca rolled her eyes and tried not to laugh. "Come on Wolves, let's hear you howl!" She cried, rallying the rest of the squad into an impassioned howl.

"Awoooooo!" Michelle cheered loudest, as Taylor sniffed and pointedly sat back down. As the cheerleaders started their routine, he glanced over at Jake and found him frowning slightly. "What's up?" He asked, his cheeks flushing as he realised he'd just been yelling about his very platonic love for one of his best friends, very publicly.

Jake watched the cheer squad a moment longer, his brows slowly drawing into a deeper frown. "... Rebecca seem off her game to ya, Boy Scout?" He finally asked, nodding towards where Rebecca was dancing clumsily at the back of the formation.

Taylors hands balled into fists, his heart aching for his friend as he gazed down at her. She hasn't told him about the blackmail... He thought, biting his lip as he tried to decide what he could say to reassure her brother, without actually betraying her trust. "Maybe..." He said slowly, looking up at Jake and locking his deep blue gaze onto the pilots cerulean eyes. "There's something going on with her..." He said carefully.

"Must be." Jake replied, as he immediately began to nod in agreement. "Becca wouldn't let any old stress interfere with her cheerleadin'." He went on to explain, sighing as he looked down at her again and gripped the edge of his seat. "Gymnastics, dance, cheer... performin' was always the one thing that helped her escape from whatever other crap she was dealin' with."

Taylor felt his heart lurch, looking back down at Rebecca sadly. "Crap like... your parents?" He asked quietly, the crowd almost drowning out his words, though he knew Jake heard him from the surprised glance he threw him.

Jake sighed, his foot tapping on the bleachers. "Yeah..." He said, swallowing thickly as he nodded. "I gave up on my folks a long time ago, to be honest... To me, their just a coupla unpleasant strangers who happen to live with my sister." He said, looking over at Taylor and frowning at the distant expression he wore, clearly oblivious of the pilots scrutiny. "But Becca? I don't think she could ever cut 'em out like that. She's too good a person."

Taylor listened to the pilots explanation, his heart swelling and clenching alternately, as he thought about how their situations were so similar; and yet so different. What I wouldn't give, to have the chance to have cut my parents out myself. He thought, his eyes narrowing briefly as he shook his head minutely, unaware of Jake's growing concern beside him. Still, not like it really makes a difference. He still has to see his on occasion, I don't even know where the hell mine are... He hummed, suddenly realising how long he'd been silent. He felt his cheeks burn in embarrassment, and he forced a laugh as he scratched his ear, glancing over at Jake as he cleared his throat. "So, you're not a good person?" He asked coyly, raising a brow and pasting a cocky grin to his face.

Jake eyed him a moment longer, clearly debating whether or not to ask, before seeming to respect his silent and unsubtle plea to avoid the subject. "Heh," he huffed, winking as he smirked back at Taylor. "Not too good."

"Not too good... enough that, you can handle getting into a little trouble on occasion?" Taylor asked, as Jake barked a surprised laugh and shook his head at him.

"Depends on the trouble..." He said, raising a brow as he eyed Taylor quickly. "Trouble I'm closest to right now, though? Not so little..." He snickered, as Taylor snorted and bit his lip.

They looked down at the cheer squad as the routine finished, and Taylor drew in a deep breath to steel his nerves, before nudging Jake's elbow lightly. "I promise, she will be okay, Top Gun." He said, nodding his head towards Rebecca, as she trudged back to her seat dejectedly. "She's not alone... not anymore." He assured, as Jake blinked in surprise, before nodding sharply in thanks.

They fell into a comfortable silence, as the second half of the game began, and Taylor felt a rare flood of warmth blaze in his heart as they both turned to watch the team bound back onto the court. They cheered together during the third quarter, as Sean sank basket after basket; until finally, by the middle of the final quarter, the Wolves were only down by one point.  "Holy crap..." Taylor muttered, his eyes wide in awe of his friend.

"Huh," Jake hummed in agreement, watching Sean with approval as he dodged around the opposing teams players easily. "We might actually win this." He admitted with obvious surprise, as the cheering from their side of the bleachers grew louder, when Tim grabbed a rebound, and began dribbling up the court.

"Woo!" Rebecca cheered eagerly, waving her pom poms excitedly. "Get 'em, Wolves!" She cried, as Tom stopped, blocked by an Anderton defender. He spun, looking for an opening.

"Sean!" He called, passing the ball quickly when he spotted his friend was unguarded. With just five seconds left on the clock, Sean pivoted, and launched the ball towards the net.

"Come on..!" Erupted from the court and bleachers alike, the entire crowd seeming to hold its breath and track the ball with their eyes, until it drooled straight into the basket.

"Boom!" Craig yelled from the back of the bleachers, just before the crowd roared, surging to their feet as one. The stands bled onto the court, rushing forward as a chant began to rise over the noise.

"Hail Gayle! Hail Gayle! Hail Gayle!" The crowd cheered ecstatically, as Taylor laughed and applauded, moving to join the group hug which was rapidly forming around Sean.

"You're number one, dude!" He called, as Sean beamed at him giddily. "And also... All hayle, Sean Gayle!" He crowed, as Sean laughed and shook hands with the various people who thrust their arms toward him eagerly.

"Well, my first demand as victor; is for everyone to party!" Sean called, laughing as the crowd cheered uproariously and began to disperse slightly. As the throng of bodies began to clear, Taylor lingered behind, shaking his head as Sean approached with a shy but pleased grin.

"You were incredible out there, man." Taylor said, bumping his fist to Sean's, before laughing when the sports star enveloped him in a tight hug. "I always knew you were gonna end up the star of the team...  Who says you can only be awesome at one sport?" He snickered, as he gently disentangled himself from Sean's embrace.

"Heh, thanks Taylor." Sean chuckled, beaming down at him. He looked around the gym, his eyes welling with emotion as he shook his head gently. "I can't believe this is happening... I knew I could do this! That if they'd just give me a chance..." He murmured, just as Tom pushed his way through the wall of bodies around them.

"C'mon, Sean! We've gotta hit the showers!" He said, beaming as he clapped Sean on the shoulder affectionately. "Coach is taking the whole team out to the diner to celebrate!"

Sean smiled at his friend, clapping him back on his shoulder briefly, before looking back at Taylor. "You should come too!" He said, grinning broadly as he began to back away with Tom. "Desserts on me, I'm feeling generous to my star cheerer!" He said, as Taylor laughed and flushed.

"I might take you up on that!" He called after him, as Sean followed the rest of his team to the locker room. Taylor shook his head, and looked around, realising he'd lost Jake somewhere along the way. He searched the gym, his elation just beginning to turn to dismay, when he spotted the pilot over by the doors. "Hey!" He called, trotting over and peeking up at him shyly. "You heading out?"

"Soon, yeah." Jake said, as Taylor nodded and bit his lip, lowering his eyes to hide his disappointment. "Gonna see if I can talk to Rebecca for a minute first." He said, pausing before clearing his throat. "You uh, want a ride home?" He asked quickly, as Taylors head jerked up in surprise. He blinked, as Jake snorted and averted his gaze around the gym, unintentionally giving Taylor the chance to catch the faint stain of colour creeping up his throat. 

"Uh... Maybe?" Taylor finally managed to ask back, drawing a quiet laugh from the pilot. "I mean, I'd like... But I..." Taylor drew in a deep breath and, forcing himself to stop babbling, as he felt his cheeks turn hot from embarrassment. "I might be going to the diner with Sean and the team..." He said, biting his lip uncertainly, sorely tempted to tell Sean to eat his own damn desert and take the offered ride home; but not wanting to let his friend down, after his long awaited victory.

"Well, I can run ya over there, or pick you up after, if ya want." Jake offered, shrugging his shoulder and scratching the back of his neck briefly, as he cleared his throat. "I mean, it'll be dark by then, and ya don't wanna be walkin' along the road that time of night. Never know who ya might meet out there."

"Hmm, I know who I'd like to meet." Taylor teased cockily, snickering when Jake snorted and shook his head. 

"Just let me know." The pilot huffed, holding out his hand expectantly. "It's a nice drive anyway, this time of night." He said, smirking as Taylor bit his lip and handed over his phone. He watched as Jake entered his number, before giving his phone back again, clearing his throat as he stepped back and stuffed his hands in his jacket pocket.

Taylor looked down at his phone, and laughed when he saw the new contact saved under 'Top Gun', his eyes lighting with amusement as he looked back up at Jake with a pleased grin. The pilot chuckled, and threw him a cocky wink and a rough teo fingered salute, before wandering through the crowd to find his sister. Taylor walked outside in a daze, his heart racing as he grinned foolishly, staring down at the new contact in his phone giddily.

Holy shit... I just got a guys phone number. He thought to himself, drawing in and exhaling a deep breath to try and cool his excitement slightly. A hot guys number... A hot, navy pilots number. A hot, navy pilot, who is... My best friends brother, and probably, possibly... hopefully, more than just being friendly. He bit his lip, shaking his head to stop his thoughts from rambling endlessly.

He drew in another deep breath, looking around and watching the crowd dispersing to their cars, chatting excitedly about the game. He exhaled slowly, finally clearing some of the giddy awe from his jumbled head. "Okay... So." He said, biting his lip again to try and prevent himself grinning like an idiot again. "What should I do tonight..?" He wondered aloud, swallowing thickly as he looked down at his phone. Sean really deserved this win tonight... I can't let him down. He thought, his lips twitching as he looked out into the darkening sky. But, Jake did say to text him after, if I wanted... He thought giddily, stuffing his phone back into his pocket as he shrugged his bag higher on his shoulder. "And oh boy... do I want..." He murmured, unable to fight off his wide smile again, as he turned and began to walk into town.

Ten minutes later, the night air having sufficiently cooled his overexcited ego, he stepped into the diner and took a look around. It was mostly empty, apart from a rowdy table in the back, where the basketball players sat. "Taylor" Sean called, beaming a wide grin his way as he spotted him. "Over here!"

Taylor smiled, walking over as Sean scooted closer to Tom and patted the empty seat next to him. Taylor winked, and slid in beside him. "Hey, guys." He greeted, grinning at Sean and nudging his elbow playfully. "I was promised dessert."

"Hey, Taylor." Tom said, waving shyly as Sean laughed and rolled his eyes at Taylors teasing.

"I'm really glad you made it, man." Sean said, smiling as he nudged Taylor back. "Took you long enough though... I didn't think you'd show."

"I... almost didn't." Taylor admitted, his cheeks flaring with heat as an unstoppable grin spread across his face. "I was offered a ride. Hot guy and all, you know..." He said, winking exaggeratedly as Sean rolled his eyes and grinned knowingly. "But then I thought, how could I possibly miss out on this riotous display of bro-ness?" He snickered, as Sean and Tom both laughed at him. 

"So, Sean..." He said suddenly, clearing his throat and adopting a serious expression, despite the obvious amusement in his eyes, as he held his hand out to him like a microphone. "You've just led the Wolves to victory... Would you say, I'm your lucky charm?" He asked, snickering at Sean's surprised chuckle.

"Well, I'm definitely feelin pretty lucky right now." The sports star admitted, grinning at Taylor and giving him a wink.

"My boy Sean got game." Tom said, feigning a swoon and falling over into Sean's lap, smirking up at them. "Be still my heart! You better snap this one up quick, Taylor."

"Eh?" Taylor choked, his brows rising as Sean laughed and playfully nudged Tom in the ribs, helping him sit up again he darted a confused look between Sean and Taylor.

"Taylors default setting when talking to guys is 'flirt'..." Sean explained, still chuckling at Taylors genuine confusion and startlement. "I'm not his type in the slightest though, way too boring for him." He said, grinning over at Taylor as he frowned.

"What the hell? That makes me sound like some kind of horny dog, humping everyone's leg until I find the right-" he trailed off suddenly, feeling hot all the way to his ears as he cleared his throat. "What makes you think I even have a type? There is no type, nor any basis for a type to be construed..."

"Oh please," Sean scoffed, picking up his drink and downing some quickly as Taylor frowned at him. "You light up like a peacock whenever you're actually interested on someone." 

"Why does everyone keep saying that?!" Taylor complained, leaning forward and burying his head under his arms briefly, groaning as he fought off his embarrassment and frustration. "More to the point why do you all say stuff I can't deny?" He added with a pout, scowling as he finally sat up again.

"'Cause it's funny to see you squirm, dude." Sean chuckled, shrugging lightly. "And besides, it's always the dangerous streak you go for. Like, a certain someone's big, navy pilot brother." He said, smirking knowingly as Tom discreetly slipped away to go chat with some of their other teammates.

Taylor cleared his throat, determinedly ignoring the fierce blaze of heat in his cheeks as he watched Tom laugh with the others. "You're really close, huh?" He asked, nodding to where Tom was waving his arms in emphatic emphasis of something the others found hilarious.

"Subtle, Taylor." Sean snorted, shaking his head as he followed Taylors gaze. "Me and Tom? Yeah, we're pretty tight... I knew him before I met you, even. He's my oldest friend."

"I can tell." Taylor said, his natural confidence returning with the much safer topic of anything but his limited experience with dating. "It's obvious you two have each others backs."

"Yeah." Sean hummed, his expression turning thoughtful as he gently toyed with his glass. "When I first started on the team, it was... kinda hard, I guess. The change from football to basketball, the fallout from Craig and Michelle, the..." He paused, swallowing heavily as he glanced at Taylor. "You know, everything with momma..." He said roughly, before quickly pushing on. "Anyway, it was just good to know Tom was always gonna be there too. Made things that little bit easier."

"Sean... I'm sorry I wasn't there for yo-" Taylor began, grimacing guiltily as he looked at Sean, only for his friend to bump their shoulders together playfully.

"You were." He assured, spreading his palm briefly, before smiling warmly. "Okay, maybe we weren't quite so close then, but you still came and talked to me when you saw I was down, and I told you more than I did either Craig or Michelle... I still trusted you more, despite the years we didn't talk." He said, shaking his head fondly. "It might not have been as much as Tom, but you were there... You all were. And that helped too."

Taylor hummed vaguely, still feeling the gnaw of guilt in his gut, but it was sufficiently dulled by Sean's reassurances. "So," he coughed, gesturing over to Tom again. "How'd you guys meet?"

"Our parents were friends in college." Sean said, following Taylors gaze to his friend and smiling fondly. "We've been hanging around each other since we were in diapers." He huffed affectionately.

"Okay, I'm gonna need to see baby pictures for evidence." Taylor snickered, as Sean laughed and shook his head. 

"Evidence of what exactly? Our friendship?" He huffed, looking back at Taylor in amusement.

"There's that yes, but also lots of 'aww! Lookit tiny baby Sean!' And comparing your aforementioned tininess, to your now big and hugeness." He chuckled, winking as he patted Sean's large bicep for emphasis.

"Pretty sure momma already showed you all the embarrassing baby pictures." Sean said, running a hand over his hair. "We used to be friends, remember?"

"We're friends now too... aren't we?" Taylor asked, cocking his head slightly as he raised a curious brow.

Sean met Taylors eyes, breaking out in a slow, soft smile. "Yeah... Yeah, of course we are." He said, immediately rolling his eyes when Taylor waggled his brows at him.

"Then there's no reason she can't show me again." He said, sniggering at Sean's exasperated huff of amusement. At that moment, the waitress approached, asking for dessert orders.

"Well, like you said..." Sean huffed, smiling at Taylor warmly. "I did promise you dessert." He reminded, as Taylor laughed.

"Hmm..." He hummed, glancing at the menu, before looking over at Sean with a grin. "How about we split the Strawberry Sweetheart Shake?" He suggested.

"Isn't that meant for couples?" Sean asked, raising an amused brow at him as Taylor sniggered and nodded to the waitress.

"Then it's just as well we're a couple of really good friends, who don't make each other drink huge shakes by themselves." He said, laughing when Sean groaned at him and shook his head. "Besides, I know strawberry is your favourite..." He teased in a sing song voice. 

A few minutes later, the waitress returned, bringing an enormous, bright pink shake, with heart shaped sprinkles. Taylor sniggered and bumped his straw to Sean's quickly, grinning widely as Sean grabbed his own straw. "To your victory, good sir!"

"Careful, I might get used to all this praise and worship." Sean said, chuckling as they both leaned in to sip from the giant milkshake. Taylor grinned around his straw, pleased to have had the chance to reaffirm his friendship with the sports star. He glanced out the window, his thoughts turning to his conversation with Jake about walking home in the dark, and he felt his cheeks begin to warm, as he began to free his phone from his pocket. "Are you blushing?" Sean asked suddenly, startling Taylor from his thoughts as he coughed and spluttered briefly.

"No." He protested, scowling at Sean as his cheeks noticeably heated further. "Shut up." He groused, muttering to himself as he checked the time on his phone.

"Uh huh." Sean chuckled, watching Taylor as he picked up his phone and set it back on the table several times, unable to decide whether to send the message or not. "Hey, Taylor..." He said suddenly, turning serious as he frowned over their shake at him. Taylor blinked, looking up in surprise at the heavy tone. "I dunno what Ben meant yesterday, or why it upset you so bad, but I just wanted you to know..." He began, his frown deepening briefly, as Taylor flinched and averted his gaze. "You're a pretty amazing person, you know?" He said, surprising Taylor in his gentle sincerity and drawing his gaze to return to him. "I'm really glad, you're back in my life." He said, smiling softly as something hard in Taylors chest began to melt.

"Yeah... me too." He said, grinning back at his friend as he gestured to the shake. "Desserts like this, I'm more than glad..." He snickered, as Sean laughed and took another sip.

"Hey, heads up guys!" Tom said, approaching them with a wide grin. "Samson swears he can eat this cheeseburger in one bite, and we gotta clear a barf zone." He said, drawing laughter from them both as they quickly finished their shake and moved out of the way.

"I guess this is where you head off?" Sean asked knowingly, smiling as Taylor grabbed his bag and phone. "See you tomorrow?" He said, as Taylor hugged him briefly.

"You know it." He said, winking as he stepped out into the night air, the door closing behind him with a soft chime. I could just walk home... He thought, starting to half heartedly dawdle down the street. Hell, it might even be safer to, just so I can't embarrass myself... But, still... He paused, biting his lip indecisively for a moment. He drew in a deep breath and had just raised his phone when it began to ring, Rebecca's name lighting up the screen. With a frown, he accepted and raised the phone to his ear. "Becca? You okay?"

"Taylor... Can-" Rebecca broke off, and Taylor was sure he could hear the girl sniffling down the phone. "Can ya come walk me to my car..?" She asked hesitantly, as if ashamed of herself for asking. "I... I mean, only if it's not too much... I, oh god I'm sorr-"

"No, no its fine!" Taylor quickly replied, already jogging back towards the school. "Where abouts are you? I'll meet you... What's wrong?" He fired off quickly, hoping to keep the girl talking.

"I'm just bein' stupid, I know..." Rebecca sniffed, and Taylor frowned as he heard her draw in a shaky sigh. "I just, I don't wanna face seein' Michelle on my own tonight... Not after havin' Jake on my case about what's buggin' me. Thanks by the way, for not tellin' him."

"Of course I didn't," Taylor huffed, turning back into the school grounds. "It's not my place to, but he's worried about you too... And he might be able to help you, Becca." 

"Nobody can help me, Taylor..." Rebecca sighed, and Taylor heard her move around briefly on the other end of the phone. "After everythin' tonight, I just... I ended up just starin' at my reflection in the mirror for ages, and... and I don't know how much more of this I can take, Taylor..." She said in a small voice, as Taylor felt his heart clench painfully.

"Hey, its okay, remember?" Taylor said, trying to sound comforting as opposed to out of breath. "I'm here, you're not alone anymore. You can talk to me about anythi-" A heavy sound travelled down the line, and Taylor sped up to an almost run, as he Rebecca gasp a moment later. "Hold on, Becca... Just get out of there, I'm nearly to the gym." He assured, as Rebecca made an indistinct sound, and Taylor assumed she put her phone in her pocket.

"Jumpy much?" Michelle's voice drawled down the phone, sounding almost gleeful. "Guess I'd be on edge too, if I just made an ass of myself in front of the whole school." She giggled, as Taylor grit his teeth, his free hand balling into a fist on behalf of Rebecca.

"Ya know what, Michelle?" The fiery redhead fumed down the phone, as Taylor murmured praise into his end of the call. "Get the hell away from me."

"Excuse me?" Michelle demanded, clearly outraged by Rebecca's sudden flare of temper.

"Ya heard me just fine." Rebecca snarled, as Taylor panted and slowed back down to a jog, upon reaching the gym. "Why don't ya go back to whatever hell dimension, ya back-handsprung outta?" She demanded, though Taylors gut clenched fearfully, when her outburst followed by a long, furious silence.

"Wow, I really thought you'd have learnt by now." Michelle said suddenly, her tone entirely too cheerful to be anything but threatening. "But I guess you really are as dumb as you look." She said, and Taylor heard Rebecca draw a breath to reply, when she seemed to exhale sharply instead.

"No..." She gasped a moment later, and Taylors heart broke for his friend, at her distraught tone.

"Aww, just look how sad you are!" Michelle sneered condescendingly, though her words were belied by her amused giggle. "I tried to pick a thumbnail where you could really see the snot."

"Michelle..!" Rebecca choked, and Taylor scowled as he heard Michelle's footsteps click closer to his friend, glancing around as he made his way across the school campus as quickly as he could.

"You know, Becca, I super appreciate everything you've done for me," the blonde drawled down the phone, as Taylor grit his teeth and hopped over a broken chunk of pavement. "But, I really feel like its time to take our friendship, to the next level... Your parents are gonna be out of town soon, right?" She asked, and Taylor was sure he could hear Rebecca's terrified heartbeat down the phone. "For that convention or whatever. You know what that means... Party at Rebecca's house!"

"Michelle, no!" Rebecca pleaded, her fear almost palpable down the line. "My mom would kille me!"

"Yeah," Michelle said flippantly, giggling as she continued cheerfully. "But what would she do if..." She hummed, as Rebecca gasped.

"Michelle, ya don't wanna do this...." Rebecca insisted, and Taylor couldn't tell if she was concerned for what might happen to the blonde; given the recent spat of 'accidents' which had helped his friends, or if she was genuinely trying to appeal to Michelle's long since deadened heart.

"I kinda do, actually." Michele said lightly, sighing thoughtfully. "I post this, your mom grounds you forever. I get to be cheer captain... Plus, so many Pictogram likes." She drawled, her airy chuckle making Taylors fury spike sharply. "Really, it's up to you to give me a reason not to post it. So... party at your place?"

Taylor heard Rebecca pause, could almost hear the thoughts in her head, before she finally sighed in resignation. "... Okay." She conceded, her voice small and broken. Taylor rounded the corner, just as he heard Michelle's footsteps begin to retreat from Rebecca, dipping sideways into the shadows of the gym as he saw the door opening on the far side of the parking lot.

"Yay!" Michelle cheered, glancing back from the doorway as Taylor watched through narrowed eyes, listening to her condescending tone down the phone. "I'll let you know when I've worked out all the details. Byyeeee!" She called, turning to walk away, leaving the door to clamg shut behind her.

Taylor lowered his eyes to the floor, as he heard Rebecca sniff, clearly giving in to her desire to cry now she was alone. "Becca, I'm here... Come on out, it can't get any worse. I'm here, Becca..." He said, wishing he could do more to help his friend, as he crept toward the door through the shadows of the gym.

"What am I gonna do..?" He heard Rebecca cry down the phone, his heart breaking for her; until his attention was stolen suddenly, by a shrill scream piercing the air. "Michelle?!" Rebecca cried, as Taylor jerked his eyes up from the ground to look across the car park in the direction Michelle had moved. "Taylor!" Rebecca called, flying out of the locker room and spotting him as he rushed forward to meet her.

"You okay?" He asked, hanging up his phone and shoving it in his pocket, before running back toward the front of the school. "Whoa..!" He cried, pulling up short at the corner and pulling Rebecca behind him, peeling around to look at the familiar form of a bony, vine creature.

"Oh my god..." Rebecca gasped, seeing the beast for the first time. She glanced at Taylor, biting her lip indecisively, before shoving Taylor back against the wall. "Stay here." She ordered sharply, before rushing around the side of the building alone.

"Becca!" Taylor hissed, though he did as he was bid and remained out of sight, confident in his assumption that the creature would not hurt his friend; though he was ready to act, if it tried to.

"R-R-Rebecca..." Michelle stammered,her terrified gaze locked onto the creature before her. "Rebecca, do s-something..!" She pleaded, shrieking again as the plant creature lunged forward, its jaws snapping around the blondes bag and tearing it away from her.

"Michelle, run!" Rebecca called, moving cautiously closer as she grabbed a large rock from the ground. Taylor bit his lip, stepping closer to the corner of the building as his heart hammered in his chest, watching the blonde sprint to her car worh the creature at her heels. He sighed in relief as she pulled the door closed behind her, barely in time to keep the beast from leaping in beside her.

Rebecca narrowed her eyes as the creature slammed against the car door, crumpling metal and cracking glass, as Michelle screamed inside; tears streaming down her cheeks. "Chill out already," Rebecca barked, cocking her arm. "I'm helpin' ya!" She growled, launching her large rock with perfect aim, striking the creature on the head and seening to stun it. "Just don't open the damn door!"

"Duh, idiot!" Michelle yelled, as Taylor rolled his eyes and shook his head, thinking the girl lucky Rebecca hadn't left her there on her own. "Just do something!"

Taylor watched as Rebecca rummaged in her pocket for her keys, as the creature turned away from the car and slowly stalked towards her. "Er... Good, tree, thing... Just, uh, leave her alone, huh?" Rebecca muttered, flinching away from the creature and holding out the tiny can of mace attached to her keychain.

Taylors brow rose as he saw the creature dip its head, nosing at Michelle's fallen bag, before picking it up in its jaws, and trotting to Rebecca almost affectionately. He swallowed, a shiver passing over his spine as he thought vaguely that it seemed like the creature was smiling. "Uh, good... plant thing?" Rebecca said, as the creature tossed Michelle's purse to her feet, spilling it's contents out onto the sidewalk.

"What the hell-" Michelle gasped, her palms pressed to the cracked window of her car in disbelief. Rebecca glanced at the blonde, before slowly stooping to pick something up off the ground. Taylor grimaced at the skeletal grin which the vine creature gave Rebecca, before it loped past her and disappeared into the trees.

"Michelle..? Are ya okay?" Rebecca called distractedly, looking after the beast, before lowering her eyes to the object in her hands.

The blonde glared out through the cracked window, her face red with fury. "What the hell?! Was this just some sick prank?!" She demanded, scowling at Rebecca hatefully. "Oh, I cannot wait to see what happens to you when I post that vide-"

"This... video?" Rebecca interrupted, holding out Michelle's phone in her hand. She waved it briefly, before bringing it back to her own gaze, and Taylors heart soared as she tapped a few buttons; before noticeably relaxing.

Michelle gasped, as Rebecca began to laugh. "Looks like you're out of-" she began, only to pause when the blondes phone pinged, looking down at it briefly, while Michelle began to struggle with her mangled car door. "Holy shit, Michelle..."

"Seriously, Becca, don't-" the blonde began, only for Rebecca to scoff and cut her off.

"Oh, sorry, what was that?" She snorted, waving Michelle's phone before her. "I couldn't hear ya over the sound of ya trash talking literally every single one of ya friends." She snapped, and Taylor frowned as he felt the tickle of ominous foreboding once more alight in his gut.

"Look.. I," Michelle began, clearly panicking now that their situations had been reversed. "I was just kidding, you know? I was never gonna post that video really! I'd never-"

"Never what? Humiliate me? Exploit me for shoppin' money?" Rebecca demanded, as Taylor shrank back slightly, torn between conflicting feelings as his friend finally freed herself of the blondes hold, but seemed too lost in her ire to realise she was treading a dangerous line. "Make me jeopardize my spot on the squad, just so you'd look good?" She fumed, kicking the blondes purse toward her, but pointedly keeping her phone.

For the first time he could remember, Michelle looked truly terrified as she stared out her ruined car window, at the fiery tempered girl she had been tormenting. "Please, Becca-"

"I know what its like to be afraid all the time, Michelle." Rebecca said darkly, tossing her hair over her shoulder as she began to move away. "I'd hate for ya to feel that way..." She said, as Taylor swallowed and pulled back around the corner, concerned about the potential backlash of his friends current actions. "Ya know what? Suddenly, I do fancy havin' a party... But I think, maybe, we should have it at your house, Meech." She said, ignoring Michelle's protest as she turned on her heel and tucked the blondes phone into her pocket, waving a hand as she stalked away with her head held high. "I'll let ya know when I've worked out all the details!" She called tauntingly, strolling round the side of the building and grabbing Taylor by the hand gleefully.

"Oh my god!" She whispered gleefully, her grey eyes so alight with life, that Taylor could almost push aside his unease. "Taylor, I'm free!" She cried, wrapping her arms around him tightly.

"Yeah..." He said slowly, wrapping his arms around her in return as he decided to allow her one night to enjoy her newfound freedom, before warning her to be careful tomorrow. "Yeah, you are..." He huffed, kissing her cheek as she drew back and they began moving back towards the rear car park.

"Oh my god, Taylor... Its been so long, I can't..." She babbled happily, shaking her head in disbelief at her good fortune.

"Can't form coherent sentences?" He snickered, nudging her playfully. She laughed and swatted his shoulder, ignoring his protest as he rubbed the area with a feigned pout. "Well, at least you don't have to be scared anymore..." He said, opening her car door for her and leaning against it.

"Yeah..." She sighed giddily, hopping up on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek. "Thanks for coming..." She said, moving to climb into her car. "Oh, did ya want a ride home?" She asked, glancing to at him curiously.

"I, uh... I'm good." He said, clearing his throat as he shut the door behind her. "Drive safe." He said pointedly, hoping the strange awkwardness he felt would pass before he saw her again in the morning. She hummed and waved, before starting her car and driving away.

Taylor watched her go with a small frown, making his way slowly toward the school gate as he absently pulled out his phone and typed out a message to Jake, hitting send without pausing to think the action through. Why do I feel like this is gonna come back and bite her on the ass harder than a... His thought trailed off as he shook his head, pushing aside all of his discomfort from the evening; excitement bubbling in his gut instead, as he came to realise he'd just asked Jake to come collect him, when a message quickly came back, saying the pilot would be with him shortly.

Sure enough, only a few minutes later, he was sitting in Jake's passenger seat, while blues played softly on the radio. "Thanks for coming..." Taylor said, as he strapped himself in and finally began to feel himself relax. The pilot said nothing in reply to his thanks, but he smirked as he pulled away from the curb. "So, do you think-" Taylor began, pausing when Jake cleared his throat and spoke at the same time.

"What have you been-" the pilot asked, the both of them laughing quietly as they stopped themselves from talking over one another. They sat in comfortable silence a moment longer, and Taylor peeked up to see the pilot glancing at him occasionally, his skin prickling pleasantly under the pilots attention.

"Did, uh..." Taylor began again, clearing his throat as he tried to concentrate on what he was saying, rather than how the low lighting made Jake's bright eyes seem to glow faintly. "Did you get a chance to talk to Rebecca?"

"I did, yeah." Jake said fondly, though his expression quickly darkened. "She didn't tell me what was up, but, she was pretty excited about the game." He said, cutting a glance at Taylor as he bit his lip guiltily. "I'm glad ya hangin' out again. I can tell it makes her happy."

"I'm glad too. I didn't even realise how much I missed everyone." Taylor admitted, glancing down at his lap as he considered the ominous presence of Redfield hanging over them all. We used to be closer than anything, back then, and it practically disappeared overnight, thanks to Mr. Red... He thought, before shaking his head minutely. Because of me... He corrected, sighing as he looked out the window briefly to hide the confliction in his gaze. "I don't know if it'll stick, but I don't think you need to worry about Becca for the time being..." He hummed, catching the curious flick of the pilots eyes toward him in the reflection of his window. He grinned, pushing aside his melancholy and turning back to face the pilot. "Besides, its definitely good to see you again."

"Oh yeah?" Jake snorted, flashing Taylor a cocky grin. Taylor raised a brow, when the pilot conspicuously said nothing further, his grin only growing wider as he noted Taylors mounting frustration.

"I believe the nice thing to say here," Taylor finally snarked, folding his arms over his chest as he pouted at the pilot. "Would be 'its nice to see you too, Taylor'."

"Ah, but if I say it now, ya won't know if I mean it..." Jake said, winking at Taylor as he huffed and pointedly turned to face forward. Jake snickered, leaning over to turn the radio down, so that it was only a faint whisper in the background. Taylor bit his lip, telling himself that the pilots hand was not lingering by his leg, when Jake set it upon the gearstick. His heart skipped a beat as Jake coughed quietly, glancing sidelong at him before quickly looking forward again. "So, how's life been?" He asked, and Taylor felt his lips twitch in amusement at the hint of darkness beneath the pilots stubbled jaw. "Sounds like things have been pretty crazy over at the high school."

"Yeah, things have been, uh..." Taylor began, only to trail off awkwardly, as he recalled again the slightly too coincidentally timed animal attacks. "Complicated." He finished lamely, staring out the front window distractedly. He noticed Jake glance over with a raised brow, but the pilot chose not to pry. "Um, what about you?" He asked suddenly, not wanting to put a dampener on the evening or waste his opportunity to get to know the pilot better. "What's your favourite thing to do in town?"

Jake huffed quietly, remaining silent for such a long pause that Taylor genuinely thought he wasn't going to answer. He was just about to try and cover his disappointment with a clever comment, when Jake finally sighed and rolled his eyes. "This is gonna sound stupid, but..." He said, grimacing when he glanced at Taylors openly curious expression. "Westchester has an awesome junkyard."

Taylor bit the inside of his cheek to keep himself from laughing, forcing his expression to remain neutral with some difficulty. "I don't know about 'stupid'..." He said kindly, shrugging one shoulder as he felt his lips twitch. "Maybe, concerning and super murder-y..." He finally choked, pleased when Jake laughed along with him.

"I've been tryin' my hand at fixin' up some old cars in my spare time." Jake admitted, glancing at Taylor as the younger ran a hand through his hair and yawned. "It's kinda therapeutic actually, bit like art if ya know what ya doin'." 

"Do you know what you're doing?" Taylor asked, grinning when Jake snorted in amusement.

"No." He admitted, chuckling when Taylor laughed openly. "But it's been more fun than I thought it'd be, just... tinkerin'."

"Wow, well, it sounds pretty cool if you ask me." Taylor hummed, eyeing Jake and feeling a blush creep up his throat as he imagined the pilot half naked and sweaty, covered in oil. "Pilot, hardware store cashier... Is there anything you don't do?" He asked, pretending not to notice the thick timber of his voice.

"I'll try anything once, more if I enjoy it." Jake said, raising a brow when Taylor audibly choked and turned away, hurrying to hide his darkening face from the pilot; forgetting about his reflection in the window. "Learned how to weld for emergency touch ups in the Navy, little hobby I guess ya could say... Thought I'd put it to good use now I got the time."

"Any other hobbies you picked up in the Navy?" Taylor asked distractedly, desperately trying to cool his face off.

"Just rope and knot tyin'." Jake said, smirking knowingly when he heard Taylor give another quiet, strangled choke. He glanced over his shoulder as Taylor turned to glare at him accusingly, smiling to himself as he moved to make a left turn. "Honestly, I just like workin' with my hands... Only other thing that comes close to feelin' as good is flyin', and that ain't-" he broke off suddenly, his jaw locking as if he felt he'd said too much. 

Taylors glare softened, a cocky grin slipping onto his face in its place. "I bet you're good with your hands." He said, as Jake groaned, shaking his head in amusement; his slip apparently forgotten.

"Walked right into that one, didn't I?" He huffed, chuckling quietly as he glanced at Taylors smug grin.

"Little bit." He snickered, cocking his head coyly. "But that doesn't mean it's not true, right?" He pressed.

"Mostly just means I got a lotta calluses." Jake snorted, shaking his head at Taylors determination. "My hands are kinda like sandpaper at this point."

"You're not gonna give an inch on this, are you?" Taylor asked, narrowing his eyes accusingly as the pilot merely waved his brows in response. "Your hands didn't feel that bad in the hospital..." He muttered, drawing a surprised laugh from Jake.

"I'm surprised ya even noticed," he said, sniggering at Taylors haughty pout. "Ya were so out of it, I thought ya were beyond anythin' gettin' through to ya."

"Pfft, I notice everything when there's a hot- ahem..." He coughed abruptly, hoping to cover his slip. He glanced at Jake, the pilots grin rivaling that of a cheshire cat. "Anyway... I just, uh... I wish I were as good at making, or fixing things." He finally said, returning them to their previous conversation, while Jake smirked as he checked his mirrors. "Most of the time though, I'm just trying to stay afloat..." He said, his brow creasing slightly as he thought about the laundry he still needed to do, and the shopping he needed to get before the end of the week.

"Well, I'm one hundred percent sure that ya can figure it all out." Jake said, distracting him from the growing list of things he'd been neglecting at home.

"You're really into this whole, 'I'm so much older and wiser than you', schtick, aren't you?" Taylor huffed, rolling his eyes at the pilot. "You're only five years older than me, you know!"

"Trust me its enough." Jake snorted, glancing sidelong at Taylor as he raised a brow at him.

"Enough, what?" He prodded, his other brow rising when Jake cleared his throat and pointedly locked his gaze on the road ahead, his hand tightening on the wheel slightly.

"Enough that I should know better..." Jake murmured, though Taylor heard him anyway, his heart sinking in his chest as he lowered his eyes to his lap. The pilot cleared his throat, either not noticing Taylors sudden dejection or ignoring it. "Becca always gets pissed when I tease her about still being in high school." He said with forced brevity, though his laughter was somewhat natural, before he continued. "Which obviously means, I do it all the time."

"Best brother ever." Taylor huffed weakly, his lips quirking into a strained facsimile of a smile. He heard Jake sigh, and tried to push aside the sting of rejection in his heart, drawing in a deep breath as he sat up straighter and plastered a familiar, false smile on his face.

"Seriously Boy Scout," Jake said, glancing at him with furrowed brows. "Ya gonna be fine. If a screw up like me can get by in the real world, then you're gonna take it by storm."

Sure; friend killer, family destroyer, trouble inducer... Taylor thought, as he huffed a weak laugh. "Thanks Jake..." He said, forcing as much cheer into his voice as possible. He gathered his things together in his lap, as Jake pulled up outside his house, frowning through the window at the dark building. "Thanks again for the ride." Taylor said quickly, flashing what he hoped was a convincing grin at the pilot briefly. "It was... really nice. Also informative." He said, swallowing heavily as he reached for the door.

"... Next time, lets talk about you." Jake said, causing Taylor to pause, as his heart lurched in his chest painfully. "I'm feelin' a little exposed, here." The pilot chuckled, sounding relieved that Taylor had paused in his hurried movements. 

Taylor hesitated, before turning to look at Jake, who feigned embarrassment and covered his face with his hands. What a dork... He thought affectionately, laughing quietly. "Next time, huh?" He asked, raising a questioning brow as he bit his lip.

"Any time ya need a ride, Taylor." Jake assured, bracing one arm over the back of his seat as he winked at him. "Ya know where to find me."

"I guess I do..." He agreed, his heart clamouring in his chest as he tried to keep the giddy grin from his face. "No escaping me now." He warned, not entirely sure himself if he was only teasing.

Jake eyed him thoughtfully a moment, before looking back to the dark house, gesturing with his hand distractedly. "Ya parents ain't gonna flip that ya out so late..?" He asked, frowning when he looked back just in time to see Taylors expression shutter closed, his eyes turning blank and cold.

"No." He said, clearing his throat as he reached for the door handle again. "They won't even notice." He said quietly, unable to hide the bitter tone of dejection in his voice, as he threw the door open and hurried to step out. "Thanks again for the ride, Top Gun, get home safe." He said quickly, closing the door before Jake could reply and quickly jogging away towards the shed. He paused by the door, his heart racing as he turned to see Jake's car still parked up, but unable to see the pilot himself. He raised his hand in a wave, before hurrying into the shed to check on Mal. "Hey, little guy, how's it-" he began distractedly, before yelping and ducking suddenly as Mal flew out of the rafters, circling round quickly to  land on Taylors head. "Aah!"

"Well," he huffed, dumping his things by the door a d reaching up to pet the bird carefully. "Looks like someone's feeling better already!" He chuckled, pushing aside the sense of apathy which had been building from his dangerously close to revealing conversation with Jake.

"Grawk!" Mal crowed, fluttering back to his nest and starting to prod as something with his beak. Curious, Taylor stood on his tiptoes to look.

"Another letter..?" He asked, his brows shooting up in surprise. "Where are you finding these?" He wondered aloud, reaching to take out the letter, only for Mal to puff up his feathers and begin squawking angrily. "Aw, c'mon! That might be important!" Taylor protested, as the bird pecked at his fingers.

Taylor withdrew his hand, crossing his arms and glaring up at the little crow. Dumb bird... He thought petulantly, pouting as he tried to think of a way to distract him. With a roll of his eyes, he huffed and smirked up at the little crow. "Hey, Mal!" He called playfully, reaching into his bag. "Look what I've got..!" He said, pulling a leftover piece of granola from his lunch bag, and waving it before the bit invitingly.

"Kee!" Mal cawed, flapping his wings eagerly. He fluttered over to land on Taylors hand, as he scoffed lightly at the birds predictably. While he busily pecked at the treat, Taylor shook his head, and carefully extracted the letter from his nest.

"Dear, E.B..." He began to read aloud, wondering briefly who such a person might be, before pushing the thought aside. "Do you recall, our endless discussions beneath the old oak tree? As I settle into Westchester, your words echo in my ears, speaking of reality and ritual; known and unknown, and the ancient wilderness which lives between..." Taylor read, his brow furrowing lightly in confusion, though he pushed on regardless. "I confess, I am bewitched by this somnambulant woodland town. But there is a fog here, E.B... the gradual tension of boundaries, ill defined and shifting. Every soul in Westchester seems to acknowledge it; but none dare speak its name." He said, pausing as he recalled Jake's similar comment during the game.

"Oh, god... What the hell is wrong with this town..?" He murmured, shaking his head as he read the final passage. "A dark current courses beneath this town." He said, rolling his eyes at the almost appropriate answer to his question. "I mean to trace that current to its headwaters... and chart them, for all the world to see... Goddard... October first, eighteen seventy one." Taylor grimaced, narrowing his eyes at the page. "Why does this sound so familiar..?" He muttered, shaking his head as he returned Mal to his nest and pinned the letter up beside the first. He turned to the door, peeking out to make sure Jake wasn't still waiting; unable to tell if he was relieved or disappointed to find that he wasn't. He grabbed his things, and with a tired sigh, he began to make his way back to the house, and to the familiar, oppressive darkness within. 

Chapter Text

8.

A Bitter Pill To Swallow.

Ten years ago...

At the house in the woods, leaves crunched underfoot, as Taylor stepped out into the clearing. "See?" He called over his shoulder, grinning as he glanced back at his closest friends. "It's right where we said..."

"Holy crud, dude..!" Diego gasped, his eyes wide as he followed close on Taylors heels, looking around the small clearing in awe.

"You guys were for real?" Sean choked, as he followed them through the edge of the trees, staring in disbelief at the decrepit little house, secreted away by a wall of trees on all sides.

"Told you so!" Taylors best friend said hotly, poking out their tongue in irritation, as they scowled around the group.

"Aw, man!" Zahra crowed excitedly, her hugh bound pigtails bouncing as she ran around the clearing as close to the house as she dared. "Is this where the monster grabbed you?!" She asked eagerly, glancing back at Taylor as he strolled closer fearlessly.

"Yeah..." Said his friend, swallowing heavily as they noticeably kept their distance, understandably hesitant to get too close again. "It was right in the door there."

Taylor knew it was wise to be so cautious, would be wiser still for him to be keeping his distance himself; but no matter how much he told himself this, he still found his feet inexplicably drawn closer to the house. 

"Cooool..!" Zahra cackled,creeping closer to the outside of the house, examining the tree roots twisting through the windows and ceiling.

"It is so not cool, guys!" Raj insisted, trading a scowl between Taylor and his younger cousin. "I can't believe you guys came out here and didn't tell me! You could have gotten hurt, little doodlejumpers!"

"It's okay..." His younger cousin said, a shy smile lighting their face as they looked over at Taylor with a hint of a blush in their cheeks, as he stared at the house intently. "Taylor was here to protect me."

"Well, y-yeah..." Raj began, worrying his lip as he glanced over at Taylor uncertainly. "I know, but-"

"So what, exactly, happened again?" Aleister demanded, scowling at the small, decrepit house distastefully. His shockingly white hair seemed strangely out of place beside the dark house, and Taylor had to fight off a grin as he snapped out of his daze to answer his friend.

"We got close to the door, and then Redfield tried to suck us in... like a big vacuum!" He explained again, reaching out to steady Rebecca as she hopped daintily off of a fallen tree trunk.

"Wait, 'Redfield'?" She asked, her grey eyes widening as she huddled closer to his side. "How d'ya know its name?" She whispered, shivering as Taylor grinned at her.

"I asked," he said proudly, his eyes alight with amusement. "And then he scratched it out on the floor."

"And then he stole my necklace!" His best friend cried, scowling at the little house in furious outrage, but noticeably keeping their distance.

"Aaaah, that's so creepy!" Zahra droned, the metal studs on her small leather jacket glinting in the sun as she darted around the outside of the dilapidated house, trying to spy the monster within. "I love it!"

Quinn called to them from nearby, gazing down at something beside her sadly, as she leaned against a  tree. "There's a dead bird over here..." She said distractedly, her breath coming in shallow pants as she toyed with the end of her long braid. "This place is weird." She murmured quietly, gazing around the clearing tiredly. "... I want to leave!" 

"No way, man!" Sean growled, scowling at the house as he balled his hands into fists, the faintest hint of a bruise showing from beneath the collar of his football shirt. "Let's get in there already and kick that things ass!"

"I think we should go inside." Taylor agreed eagerly, finding himself just as drawn to the strange building as he was during his first visit.

"Heck yeah!" Zahra crowed, offering her fist to him as he made his way to the entrance to the house, and bumping their fists together firmly.

"I ain't goin' in there!" Rebecca cried, shaking her head as Taylor and Zahra peered through the dark doorway. "Are you insane?!" She demanded hotly.

"Well, if Rebecca's not going, then I'm staying outside too." Quinn called, pushing off from her tree slowly and moving toward the other redhead, the pair holding hands as she came to stand beside her.

"Arghhh!" Zahra sneered, scowling at the pair in frustration. "You guys never wanna do cool stuff!" She scoffed angrily, crossing her arms as she looked away from them.

A high pitched cry suddenly pierced the air, a shrill trilling which had them all covering their ears with cries of shock. "That's my whistle!" Cried Raj's slightly younger cousin, gazing at the broken house in disbelief. "Mr. Red, he's-" They gasped, their expression quickly bleeding from shock to fury, as their cheeks puffed out irritably. "He's makin' fun of us!"

Taylor gazed through the dark doorway, recalling the last time he'd dared to enter the ramshackle building, as the whistle continued to toot cheerfully from within; as if daring him to go after it. "Well, that settles it." Raj huffed sternly, strolling across the clearing to his cousin and taking them by the hand. "Now we're definitely not going in."

"What?" His cousin gasped, their eyes widening comically as they looked up at him in confusion. "Why?"

"Uh, 'cause it's obviously a trap, little doodlejump!" Raj huffed, scowling down at them as they began to struggle, trying to free their hand.

"Exactly!" Rebecca said, nodding her head in agreement with Raj, as Quinn seemed to recover some of her spent energy from their journey through the woods, looking around the clearing curiously; though she nodded along with Rebecca and Raj's rejection of the house.

"Urghhh..." Zahra sighed, her face falling as she turned to look at the house behind her longingly. "But, what if we got Jake to come, and record it on his new phone? We could send it to those ghost hunter guys on tv!" She enthused, though she reluctantly moved away from the entrance.

"No way!" Rebecca snarled, scowling over at Zahra furiously. "I ain't goin' in some creepy hole to get eaten, especially with my stupid brother!" She insisted hotly, as Taylor turned and raised a curious brow at her. 

"I don't think your brothers stupid..." He said quietly, fiddling with the hem of his shirt as he poked his tongue into the gap in his teeth. "He's brave, he'd lead us in there!"

"That's exactly why he's so stupid!" Rebecca scoffed, grimacing at the floor. "Jake's got this dumb itch under his skin, if its a bad idea, he'll probably do it; especially if it annoys mom and dad." She complained, as Taylor sighed and decided to let the touchy subject go.

Taylor felt something inside him sink despondently, as he reluctantly turned his back on the house and over at his friend, restrained by their slightly older cousin. "Sorry, dude..."

His friend tore their hand free from Raj, balling their fists tightly as their face turned red from mounting fury, as the mocking whistling continued. They growled, and stamped their foot on the ground in a rage. "Screw you, Mr. Red!" They cried, their eyes welling with the years of frustration.

As they all turned to go however, the whistling suddenly died down, and another noise began to sound from within the little broken house.

 "... wait..."

As they all glanced back, something tint flew out from inside the house, bouncing off Raj's cousins chest, and landing in their hands. "M-my whistle?!" They gasped, their eyes wide in surprise.

"... give back... stay... sorry..."

"Dude!" Diego cried, running over to Taylors side and clutching at his arm in disbelief, as he grinned back at the house. Diego shook his head slightly, before following Taylors gaze toward the house.

"Just what kind of monster apologizes?" Aleister demanded, staring at the house thoughtfully, as he tugged at the collar of his jacket.

"Sh-should we... talk to it?" Sean asked, swallowing heavily at his unfamiliar sense of uncertainty. The rest of Taylors friends exchanged hesitant glances, as he stepped forward in a show of confidence.

"M-Mister Red?" He called, sensing the being within was listening to him carefully. "... What are you?" He asked curiously, slowly creeping closer to the house.

"... friend... magic... secret..." 

"Whoa, this is so cooool, dude!" Diego gushed, hurrying up to Taylors side and grabbing his arm, and meeting his gaze with an excited grin as they crept closer together.

"Oh yeah, that's not weird." Rebecca scoffed, folding her arms over her chest as she watched them unsubtly head towards the house with a scowl. "Ya so gullible! I can't believe ya just-" her furious scolding fell silent however, as a gust of golden leaves blew through the clearing.

"G-guys! Look!" Quinn gasped, pointing towards the tree she had been leaning against, at the far edge of the clearing. 

Taylor followed the direction of her finger, to see a bundle of slender vines begin to move on their own. They snaked their way across the clearing, seizing gild of the dead bird which Quinn had noticed previously. The birds small body shuddered, as hair thin roots began to permeate the dead flesh like veins. Taylor stared in fascination, as it flopped onto its side, its tiny feet clawing at the air.

"No frickin' way!" Sean choked, staring at the phenomena in awed disbelief as the rest of the group slowly came to huddle together in the centre of the clearing; as the bird jerkily got to its feet, chirping merrily. 

Taylor felt his heart lurch as it looked up at him, bright amber flames burning where its eyes should have been. "... Incredible." Aleister murmured quietly, scratching his chin thoughtfully.

"Did you guys see that?!" Zahra demanded, trading fist bumps with anyone who wasn't too stunned to respond.

"Mr. Red brought the bird back to life." Taylor said, smiling as he stepped forward and held out his hand to the bird fearlessly.

"Is it really alive?" Quinn asked dubiously, taking a step back to counter Taylors approach to the animal. "It looks sick or something... I don't think I like this."

"Are you kidding?" Diego cried, leaning over Taylors shoulder eagerly, hoping to see his friend tame the arisen animal. "This is amazing! It's like when Michael and KITT had to goto that Indian burial ground, and-"

"Oh, do desist in your prattling." Aleister sneered, folding his arms over his chest as he averted his gaze, his cheeks stained a faint pink. "Not all of us have seen all the episodes yet..."

"Dude, is that your way of saying 'no spoilers'?" Diego laughed, moving away from Taylor to nudge Aleister playfully, the other boy scowling at him as he straightened his unaffected jacket.

"I still dunno, guys..." Rebecca sighed, ignoring the now bickering Aleister and Diego, as she frowned toward Taylor worriedly.

"Well, they're the ones who got grabbed..." Diego interjected, as he and Aleister paused their bickering to peer around the group briefly.

"This is true." Aleister reluctantly conceded, dipping his head toward Diego in acknowledgement, as Diego rolled his eyes and mockingly poked out his tongue. "As the injured parties, what do you think?"

"Um... hmm..." Raj's cousin hummed uncertainly, glancing over at Taylor as he watched the bird with a soft smile. He looked around when his friends fell silent, blinking in surprise.

"Me?" He asked, turning to face them all. "I think we should give Mr. Red a chance... Its hardly fair to judge him because of just one thing he did..." He said, wrinkling his nose as he turned towards the house with a small, shy smile. "We don't know anything about Mr. Red."

"Exactly!" Zahra crowed, darting back over to the house and running her hands over one of the tangled roots protruding through a window.

"But he's still... I dunno... creepy!" Rebecca protested, thought she cautiously approached Taylors side, her hand slipping into his own.

"Let's make a deal." He said, looking at her with a wide smile, undeniable excitement bubbling in his gaze. "We'll all come back here tomorrow, but we'll be careful and stick together." He offered, though it was clear from his almost giddy expression he didn't believe it was a necessary precaution.

"That's a good rule." Sean said, joining the group before the house and clapping a hand onto Taylors shoulder. "We only play with Mr. Red, if everyone's okay with it."

"Which will allow us to feel both safe and secure, as we watch over each other." Aleister agreed, standing at the back of the group, and scowling as Diego attached himself to his side.

"Well... That sounds good to me." Rebecca finally admitted, squeezing Taylors hand as she slowly began to smile. "Everyone agree? Nobody visits Mr. Red alone?" She asked, looking pointedly at Taylor.

Taylor smiled, his heart light as it began to race in excitement, feeling the strange connection he had to this curious place surge within his chest. "Yeah." He said softly, smiling around his friends gratefully. "Everyone plays together."

"Agreed!" Quinn giggled, taking Taylors other hand as she and Rebecca suddenly hugged him from both sides, making him laugh in surprise.

"Sweet." Zahra said, hanging from the branch in the window, having partially climbed it. "Let's pound it." She said, dropping to her feet and stomping over with a grin. She thrust her fist out before Taylor, the others slowly forming a circle around them so they were all able to mimic her gesture. Taylor raised his eyes to find himself opposite Raj's cousin, and his eyes locked onto them. They smiled, clutching their whistle tightly as they bumped their fist to Taylors with a laugh.

"Sweeeet!" Diego cheered, looking around the group excitedly. "Back to my house for lunch? Mom's making mac and cheese!"

"Oh man, we gotta go!" Zahra insisted immediately, grabbing Diego's hand and dragging him back towards the woods. "Mrs. Soto makes it with hot dog pieces!" Taylor laughed, bringing up the res of the group with Raj's cousin.

As they reached the trees, his friend turned back a d called over their shoulder. "Bye, Mr. Red! We'll come back and play with you again tomorrow!" There was no reply from within the abandoned building, but Taylor heard the once dead bird screech a farewell, and glanced back to see it's amber eyes burning bright in the shadow of a tree.

Present day...

Taylor sighed, rubbing his eyes as he trudged down the hall to his locker at the end of a long school day, still tired from having laid awake so late; lost to memories which had eventually also consumed his scattered dreams. It all seemed so easy back then. He thought, running his hand up and over his face, tugging at his hair to try and wake himself up a little.

"Aleister Rourke, to the principal's office please." An announcement buzzed over his head, making him jump in surprise. He frowned, turning back the way he'd come thoughtfully.

Is this about yesterday? He wondered, his eyes widening as he was struck by sudden concern for his friend. Oh god, what if Mrs. Montoya already told Principal Hall about Aleister, and the aids and- oh god, what if they're gonna blame him?! He mentally panicked, jogging back down the hall and taking a sharp right, pausing as he saw Aleister step into the principal's office and close the door behind him. He bit his lip as he frowned, and crept closer to the door, peeking through the frosted glass pointlessly, before facing forward again. I am just gonna make sure he isn't in trouble. I am not spying or eavesdropping or... anything else creepy. He told himself, though the flutter of disbelief in his gut said otherwise.

"You wished to see me, ma'am?" Aleister drawled respectfully, as Taylor cocked his head and tried to quiet his noisily pounding heart.

"Yes." Replied the principal, Blaire Hall. "I thought you ought to be the first to hear the news about Mrs. Montoya... considering you were there, for the attack." She said slowly, as Taylor felt his hear lurch at the memory of the snake, before it began to sink in dread. 

They can't seriously believe Aleister would've... could've, done such a thing..? He told himself, shaking his head as he swallowed heavily.

"Oh good heavens, please don't tell me she's-" Aleister pleaded, sounding unusually emotional in his obvious concern.

"Mrs. Montoya is stable." Principal Hall reassured, and Taylor exhaled heavily in relief, able to hear Aleister di the sane within the office. "The EMTs were able to administer an anti-venom... thanks to your quick actions."

Taylor felt relief course through him, certain they couldn't be about to blame Aleister for the incident, if they were first praising his rapid response. "Ahem... It was nothing." Aleister said stiffly, and Taylor turned his head toward the door as the principal scoffed.

"It was certainly not nothing." She insisted, and Taylor felt a half grin tug at his lips, imagining his friend rolling his eyes and sneering discreetly. "The hospital said another ten minutes, and Mrs. Montoya could have died. She's lucky you were there."

"Lucky." Aleister repeated, the faintest hint of derision buried beneath his respectful tone of voice. "Indeed." He added, clearing his throat.

"Of course, there is still the question of how a rattlesnake got into Mrs. Montoya's desk in the first place..." The principal sighed, as Taylor covered his mouth, hoping to stifle his quiet choke of concern.

"Do you have any theories on the matter, at present?" Aleister asked stiffly, clearly thinking along similar lines as Taylor; something which made Taylor desperately want to laugh, as he imagined his pale friends horror.

"Well, to be honest, I was hoping you could help with that." The principal admitted, and Taylor frowned, as he heard a tapping sound strike up within the office, like a pen upon a desk. "Have you heard anything? Chatter in the halls? An odd text message?"

"I-" Aleister began, before pausing in obvious shock. Taylor shifted as quietly as he could, as he heard his friend clear his throat. "Excuse my ignorance, but... Am I to understand, I am not a suspect?"

"What? No, of course not!" The principal huffed, the tapping sound stopping as the principal chuckled quietly. "I mean, if you were any other student, sure. But we all know you're not capable of something like this!" The principal assured, as Taylor pouted at the obvious favoritism. "Besides, with all your extracurricular activities, I bet you barely have enough time to catch a movie, let alone a rattlesnake."

"Ahem, yes." Aleister said awkwardly, clearly uncertain whether to be relieved of his assumed innocence or disturbed by his apparent free pass from suspicion. "Very astute."

"So, any ideas?" The principal pressed, sounding almost desperate as she steered the conversation back on point.

Aleister was silent for a long pause, enough that Taylor began to genuinely worry he might actually be about to throw someone under the bus, when finally the pale boy sighed. "I'm sorry." He said, clearing his throat delicately. "But I'm afraid I cannot be of assistance in this matter. I've heard nothing."

The principal sighed, as Taylor relaxed, smiling softly even as he shook his head at his friends sense of honour and pride. "I was afraid you'd say that." Principal Hall said, the sound of her palm slapping her desk ringing through the office door. "Damn! I mean... darn." She said, the sound of fingers tapping on the desk resuming briefly, before a chair rolled across the floor suddenly. "Actually, no. I do mean damn. It's bad enough we've got bears and wild dogs..! Now we've got snakes, too?" She fumed, the sound of quickly clicking footsteps informing Taylor that the woman was pacing furiously in her office.

"Well, it that was all..?" Aleister drawled questioningly, the muffled sound of a bag being swung drifting through the office door. "If I hear anything, I will be sure to inform someone." He promised.

"Thank you, Aleister. That will be all." He heard the principal call, and Taylor panicked suddenly, flustered as he realised Aleister was about to exit the office and catch him in his definitely not spying. "Oh, by the way..." The principal called, providing Taylor a moment to escape, though he ignored it, drawn closer to the door instead by the woman's suddenly curious tone. "I got an email from Mrs. Montoya about setting up a meeting with your aunt, but she didn't say why..." She said, as Taylors breath caught, imagining his friends sudden sense of fear. "Any idea what that's about?" He peeked around the corner and watched Aleister's silhouette through the frosted glass, as he slowly turned toward the principal.

Taylor swallowed at the heavy silence from his friend, before Aleister cleared his throat suddenly and seemed to shrug in a vague and nonchalant manner. "I'm afraid not, ma'am." He said stiffly, as Taylor bit his lip and glanced down the deserted hall, trying to quietly back away. "I don't believe she said anything to me..."

Taylor hesitated, feeling sweat bead on his brow as the principal remained studiously silent for a long pause, his heart racing on behalf of his friend, until the principal hummed loudly and he heard the sound of a chair once more rolling across the floor. "Well, I'm sure it wasn't that important then... I'll ask her when she wakes up." She said, as Taylor choked on his shock.

"Excuse me but, wake up?" Aleister repeated, clearly startled by the revelation. "What do you mean?" He demanded, as Taylor felt his heart lurch nervously.

"Oh, did I leave that part out?" The principal asked, as Taylor took a hesitant step closer to the door again. "Mrs. Montoya is still unresponsive, I'm afraid. But the doctors say..." She said, but the remainder of her words disappeared beneath the roar of blood pounding through Taylors ears. He stared down the hallway vacantly, thinking of the three people laying in the hospital right now, their lives on hold because of Redfield's apparent interjection in their lives.

Because I said we should give him a chance... He thought, swallowing heavily as he shrank back down the hall, slowly moving away towards his locker. Diego, that asshat Ben, now Mrs. Montoya... He thought, shaking his head as he blindly entered the code for his locker and traded out the books he wouldn't need for his homework that night. Oh god... What next? Sean's getting to play in the game, Aleister's precarious position as class president, Rebecca getting back at Michelle... Oh my god... Please don't let my parents suddenly show up and start apologi- his increasingly distressed thoughts were cut off, when a hand planted itself firmly on the cuff of his vest, steering him down the hall to an abandoned classroom. "Hey!" He protested, preparing to fight despite being caught unawares, when he was released suddenly and confronted with a familiar, irritated drawl.

"Honestly, Taylor, does your stupidity know no bounds?" Aleister demanded, scowling and folding his arms over his chest imperiously, as Taylor turned to face him.

"Aleister?!" He choked, rubbing the back of his neck as his brows rose in surprise. "What the hell? You scared the crap outta me, asshole!" He said, pouting at the indignant pale boy. 

"What in heavens did you think you were doing, spying on me?" Aleister demanded, as Taylor winced and bit his lip guiltily.

"I wasn't spying..!" He protested weakly, fiddling with the hem of his net sleeve. "You say it like that, and I sound like some creepy fan boy..." He muttered, quickly clearing his throat and raising his hands in placation, as Aleister's pale complexion began to redden. "Okay, alright, fine! I just... I heard the announcement and, after everything that happened yesterday, I just... I wanted to make sure you were okay. That they weren't going to try and blame you, and I swear! If they had, I would have vouched for you in a heartbeat!" He said, as Aleister rolled his eyes and sighed in exasperation.

"Yes, of course, because announcing our deceit would work wonders to clear my name." The pale boy scoffed, pinching the brow of his nose as Taylor hung his head slightly.

"... How'd you even know I was there..?" He finally asked, peeking up at his friend curiously, as Aleister snorted and looked up at him with a sardonic grin.

"You are as subtle as a brick to the face, Taylor." Aleister sneered, as Taylor flushed and averted his gaze. "You're not only the only person anywhere near the principal's office, but you're staring off into space, muttering to yourself about ridiculous theories; which all trace back to a very tragic, but very distant past. That, and you're covered in the fresh paint from the wall outside Principal Halls office." 

Taylor flushed a deep, burning shade of red as he fought to keep holding his head high. "Well, at least you know I care." He sniffed, turning away with a huff and discreetly checking over his shoulder to find he did in fact have paint brushed across him. "Aw, man..." He complained, grimacing as he wondered whether he would be able to get the paint out if he washed his clothes by hand that night.

"You're one of the most ridiculous people I've ever met, Taylor." Aleister sighed, approaching Taylor as he turned back to face him with a reproachful pout. "Nevertheless... I am pleased to know you were concerned for me." He said, briefly patting Taylors shoulder, before quickly retracting his hand again.

"Aleister..." Taylor choked, his hand rising to his chest as his lower lip trembled, causing Aleister to groan and roll his eyes again in expectation. "That's probably... The nicest thing you've ever said. And I mean ever, not just to me... So I feel double touched." He said with a chuckle, before sighing wistfully. "Oh, what I wouldn't give to just be touched, let alone double touched..." He sighed, as Aleister grimaced and stalked back to the doorway. "And preferably by Becca's really gorgeous bro-"

"If you're quite finished trying to instill traumatizing images into my brain, I believe the others are waiting for us." Aleister sneered, cutting Taylor off abruptly. Taylor laughed and perked, quickly following after the pale boy eagerly, as he led him out of the school and around towards the rear parking lot.

He frowned as they rounded the corner to meet their friends, the both of them slowing and exchanging an uncertain glance, upon discovering an unwelcome addition to the group. "What the hell took you guys so long? What, Taylor need the class president to hold his hand down the hall now?" Michelle demanded, tossing her hair over her shoulder in irritation.

Taylor's expression morphed into a scowl, easily matching Michelle's in its vehemence. "What the hell is Bootlegger Barbie doing here?" He fumed, though his eyes lit with satisfaction at Michelle's obvious outrage over his nickname for her.

"An astute question," Aleister drawled, glancing at Taylor as his lips twitched with amusement. "How unusual for Taylor."

"Why do I get the feeling I was just both praised and insulted?" Taylor asked, frowning as he ignored Michelle in favour of pouting at the clearly amused Aleister.

"She didn't suffer a major concussion, and wander here in a semi-conscious fugue." Zahra informed them, shrugging her shoulders negligently when the group all turned to look at her with curiously raised brows. "I already asked."

"Never change, Zahra." Taylor huffed, moving closer to bump his fist to the smirking girl. "Never change." 

Michelle rolled her eyes, half turning away with a sigh. "What I'm doing here is leaving, don't worry." She huffed, sneering at Taylor briefly. "I just came by to..." Michelle paused, and Rebecca nudged her with her foot. The blonde scowled, continuing through clenched teeth, as Taylor felt a spike of concern in his gut, his eyes flicking worriedly to Rebecca before quickly returning to Michelle. "... To invite you to my party at my house this Saturday." The blonde finally spat with a grimace, as if the words themselves caused her physical pain.

"Wow." Raj said slowly, exhaling a deep breath as he scratched his head thoughtfully. "Did not expect that." He finally said, shaking his head in disbelief.

"You sure about that concussion?" Sean murmured quietly, as he and Michelle pointedly tried to avoid looking at each other.

"Potato, po-tah-to." Zahra said dismissively, as she shrugged again to show that she neither knew or cared either way.

"You're inviting us to your party?" Taylor asked, glancing at Rebecca's smug grin, his heart beginning to stutter nervously. "Sounds suspicious if you ask me..." He muttered, glancing away briefly as Rebecca looked over at him with a frown. "What?" He demanded hotly, his brow creasing into a scowl as the discomfort he felt over Rebecca's easy switch from blackmail victim to blackmailer, overwhelmed him. "Why the hell would she wants us at her party? It sounds like the setup to a bad joke, or a prank or... something else that's really unpleasant. Like herpes."

"Taylor, sweetie, what have we said about stopping while you're ahead?" Quinn murmured in his ear, setting her hand on his arm and squeezing gently. He looked up at her, and felt his flare of temper fade, as the confliction in the redheads gaze caused his heart to ache.

"Great! Then don't come!" Michelle said brightly, though she looked noticeably distracted by Quinn's apparent closeness to Taylor.

"C'mon, guys!" Rebecca insisted, walking over to throw her arms around Quinn and Taylors shoulders with a bright smile, and stomping discreetly but firmly on Taylors foot. "Michelle's told me how she wants to turn over a new leaf, ya know? To stop bein' such a jerk to people... Right, Meech?"

Michelle huffed, folding her arms over her chest as she glared at Rebecca. "Yeah. Totally."

"Well, this is more weird to add to the weird pile." Zahra snorted, her brow furrowing as she looked over at Michelle thoughtfully. "Are we sure this isn't Mr. Re-" Sean nudged Zahra hard in the ribs, jerking his head towards Michelle. Zahra crossed her arms, and glared at him fiercely. "Fine. But we're gonna have a talk about all this later." She sniffed, before looking away to scowl across the grounds.

"Yeah!" Raj cried, laughing awkwardly as he removed his hat and ran a hand over his tied up hair. "We'll talk about that, uh, school project. For that class we have. That Michelle isn't in." He said, replacing his hat as his cheeks darkened, his eyes wide as he gazed around the group nervously.

"Okay, whatever you're talking about?" Michelle sneered, scowling up at Raj in irritation. "Yeah, I super don't care."

"We're..." Quinn began, pausing as she glanced over at Taylor uncertainly. He sighed and aoread his palms, gesturing for her to decide for herself. After another seconds pause, Quinn looked over at Michelle with a small, hopeful smile. "We're really all invited to your party?"

Michelle looked over at Quinn, her expression softening slightly as she met the redheads crystalline gaze. "Yeah, really." She said, a similarly hopeful smile blossoming on her face. "Does that mean you're coming..?" She asked tentatively, as Taylor hummed quietly, thinking that the blonde was far prettier when she let herself be genuine.

"Of course! I mean, so long as... everyone else..." Quinn stammered, looking quickly at Taylor, who rolled his eyes and heaved a long suffering sigh as he slowly nodded and winked. Quinn broke out in a radiant smile, turning back to Michelle with joy dancing in her eyes. "I would love to!"

"Great!" Michelle exclaimed, sounding genuinely relieved and pleased for the first time Taylor could remember. "Make sure you save me a dance." She added, toying with her hair briefly, before throwing a final glare at Rebecca and turning to stalk away toward the bus stop.

Taylor discreetly pulled Rebecca aside, lowering his voice so the others couldn't hear, as they discussed the upcoming party. "Rebecca, you're playing with fire here... You need to be careful! This isn't the sort of thing you should be messing about with!" He warned in a hiss, glancing after Michelle, though the blonde was plenty far enough that he wasn't concerned with her overhearing them. "Don't you think its a little hypocritical? I mean, I know she made your life hell, but-"

"Taylor please, I know what I'm doin' here, okay?" Rebecca assured, brushing aside his various warnings and concerns with a dismissive wave of her hand."Just trust me."

Taylor sighed, shaking his head worriedly as he looked straight into her grey eyes. "Becca... are you sure about all this?" He asked tiredly, worrying his lip as her gaze softened. "What if..." He began, only to sigh and run a hand through his hair in defeat. "You're sure she doesn't have other copies..?"

"She did." Rebecca admitted, smiling and drawing him into a hug as she tried to soothe his concerns. "But, I'm pretty sure I got them all. I scoured all her social media accounts, I even deleted the automatic backup on the cloud!"

"Becca..." He sighed, his arms wrapping around her shoulders as he swayed them back and forth slowly. "Please, just be carefu-"

"Not to break up this super cool and fun whispering thing you've got going on," Zahra called, eyeing them with both suspicion and amusement. "But visiting hours are over in, like, ninety minutes."

"Yeah, doodlejumps, we gonna go see Diego or what?" Raj asked, throwing his arm around Quinn's shoulder and holding her close as she smiled over at them fondly.

"Sorry!" Taylor called, his heart lurching as he thought of his comatose best friend, yearning to see him. "We're coming!"

"I can fit five in my car, I brought the Jag..." Rebecca called, laughing when the others clamoured to hurry over to the comfy car. "Aleister, you be able to take someone too?" She asked, turning towards him curiously. 

The pale boy to started at the sound of his name, blinking as he looked around, clearly having been lost somewhere else. "Hmm? Oh, yes, of course." He said, running a hand over his hair as he turned toward his car, leaving them to decide who was coming coming with him.

Taylor rolled his eyes as Rebecca unlocked her car, letting Zahra, Sean, Raj and Quinn pile inside eagerly. "Yo, Zahra, trade you for the front seat." Sean said, leaning forward from in the back. "These shoulders don't like the backseat."

"Bite me, dork." Zahra said, offering her middle finger in response to his request, smirking as all the doors pulled closed behind his friends.

"Guess that means you got me, Aleister." Taylor snickered, feigning an aggrieved scowl as he turned to find Aleister waiting beside his car, his arms folded on the roof.

"Hm?" He hummed again, his clouded gaze clearing slightly as he looked over at Taylor distractedly. "Oh... indeed." He said, clearing his throat as he shook himself, unlocking the car and allowing them both to climb in and apply their seatbelts, before starting up the engine, and following Rebecca out of the parking lot.

The inside of Aleister's car was silent, as the pale boy stared through the windshield, hardly seeming to notice Taylors presence at all. Taylor cleared his throat awkwardly, glancing up at his friend worriedly. "Hey... you doing okay?" He asked gently, frowning at Aleister's distant manner.

"Of course." Aleister replied, never soaring a glance for Taylor, as he continued to stare ahead, though Taylor wasn't entirely convinced he was even seeing the road.

"You sure about that?" He pressed, hesitating a moment, before fidgeting in his seat slightly. "Because, I heard... about Mrs. Montoya." He said tactfully, averting his eyes for a moment as he debated how much to push his friend. "You saved her life, Aleister. I don't think I could have done that... It must have been terrifying when that snake first attac-"

"Taylor, at the risk of repeating myself by phrasing this politely; shut up." Aleister drawled, finally glancing at him briefly. "You and I both know you'd have done exactly the same in my position, and despite how 'terrifying' the attack was, you were still enough of an idiot, to first think going after the godforsaken thing, was the best course of action." He huffed, his brow furrowing as he shook his head slightly at the memory. "Kindly desist your needless worrying. I am perfectly fine, I assure you."

"You know, nobody's here, Mr. I can do everything all by myself." Taylor groused, folding his arms over his chest as he scowled at the pale boy. "I'm a part of this too. I know what you're going through right now."

A bitter laugh escaped Aleister, and he shook his head as if trying to clear it. "My apologies, Taylor." He said after a moment, clearing his throat. "I just find it difficult to believe you can help with this... Or indeed, understand." He said delicately.

Taylor scowled at his friend, his teeth clenching and unclenching briefly, as a sneer twisted his lips. He opened his mouth to express his irritation, when Aleister sighed and began to tap at the steering wheel in agitation, glancing over at him briefly. "I..." He began, before swallowing heavily and cocking his head, seemingly to find the words again. "I have... erred." He said, glancing at Taylor as he raised a brow and chuckling quietly. "I screwed up badly." He finally admitted, his voice heavy with regret and yet lightening in relief for having finally said the words. "I am... surprisingly concerned as to what you'll think of me, should you discover what I've-"

 "So, does this have to do with the whole 'you using study aids' thing..?" Taylor asked abruptly, causing Aleister's hands to begin shaking on the wheel as a quiet huff of air escaped him. The pale boy sniffed, reaching up to wipe at his eyes.

"You really are an appalling little eavesdropper, aren't you?" He sneered, though the severity of the words was distinctly lacking. "Those accusations were unfounded." He said stiffly, before falling poignantly silent. There was a long pause, before the pale boy sighed tiredly. "Would you kindly pass me a tissue, please?" He finally asked, gesturing vaguely towards the passenger side of the car.

"Uh, sure..." Taylor hedged, uncertain if the other boy was merely avoiding the issue or whether he would give him a proper answer later. "In here..?" He asked, opening the glove compartment.

"Wait, no!" Aleister cried, lunging over to stop him and yanking the steering wheel in the process. The car swerved toward the lane of oncoming traffic, as Taylor gasped.

"Aleister!" He yelled, shoving his shoulder into Aleister's to force him back to his seat and grabbing the wheel, jerking it hard to return the correct lane and avoid a collision. "Godammit, asshole! What the hell?! I don't care if you're on study aids, you idiot, you don't have to hide it from me!" He snarked, scowling as he gestured to the now open glove compartment, where several small plastic bottles with white caps could be seen. "Okay, maybe I care that you're on them but... Jesus Aleister, I'm not going bloody judge you!" He fumed, as Aleister stoically stared ahead, his throat bobbing as he swallowed thickly.

Taylor simmered in his frustration a moment longer, but when Aleister pointedly remained silent, he shook his head and turned instead to the small bottles. "Don't..." Aleister said quietly, as he reached forward to pick up a bottle.

"Shut up, asshole." Taylor grumbled, already turning it to read the label. "So... these are focus pills." He said irritably, scowling down at the little bottle angrily.

"... Yes." Aleister finally sighed, though Taylor couldn't tell if it was from relief or defeat.

"The label has your aunt's name on them..." Taylor said, frowning as he read the disgustingly small writing. "What'd you do? Steal her prescription pad, and forge her signature?" He scoffed, looking up when Aleister remained pointedly silent. "Oh..." He said quietly, as he noticed the pale boys locked jaw, and knuckle whitening grip on the steering wheel. "Oh, Aleister..."

"I neither need nor want your pity!" Aleister fumed suddenly, glaring through the windshield furiously. "I..." He began, only to pause a moment later, the fight seeming to drain from his posture. "It was last month."

"... You're a goddamn idiot." Taylor snorted, shaking his head as he scowled down at the little bottle in his hands a moment, before looking back up at his friend. "What the hell possessed you to do it, dude?"

"I..." Aleister began, only to fall silent again for such a lo g period that Taylor thought he would never answer him. "My father was the CEO of Rourke International, which is now one of the largest and well known companies in the world; a company I am expected to take control of, as soon as my education is finally complete. My mother was a science genius, who made massive leaps and bounds in the field of cloning; which has helped save many a life... My parents were beyond gifted-"

"You never knew your parents." Taylor interrupted, raising a skeptical brow at his friend. "So you had better not be giving me the 'I just wanted to do them proud' spiel, because if so; I'm telling you right now, I call bullshit." He said firmly, as Aleister chuckled in surprise.

"Not exactly, no." Aleister said, shaking his head at Taylors forwardness. "My point is merely that, expectations were always high in my life... My aunt herself, is now an especially talented doctor, after she worked three jobs to put herself through college. She got a full ride to Harvard Medical."

"Wow, Aleister, how wonderfully impressive for them." Taylor groused, rolling his eyes. "But, you do realise these people are not you? I mean, surely just being related to so many apparent geniuses would give you a hint that this?" He said, holding up the little bottle, before tossing it back into the glove compartment. "Is a pretty fucking bad idea..."

"I'm aware that nothing can excuse what I've done..." Aleister said stiffly, glancing at him briefly before looking back at the road. "I merely wished to explain... Everything I do is measured against my parents, you see..." He said, swallowing heavily as his gaze turned distant. "'At your age, your father had started his own company. At your age, your mother had three patents. At your age, I was studying, working and caring for you.'" He said bitterly, his hand tightening on the steering wheel again briefly. "I'm already so far behind them all... and my aunt cannot hide the disappointment she feels. I see it in her eyes, every time she looks at me."

"Pfft, and you think this is gonna change her opinion?" Taylor snorted, gesturing to the little bottled with a frown, his irritation softening despite his attempts to keep it alive, his thoughts drawn unwillingly to his own parents; and their feelings toward him. Would I have gone to such lengths to make them proud, if they hadn't- he bit the thought off quickly, shaking his head minutely as he pushed his own feelings aside and refocused on his friend. 

"I could not think of anything else to do..." Aleister admitted quietly, sighing heavily as he narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. "I was already overloaded on classes, and I was no longer sleeping... I was at my limit, Taylor, and I could feel myself failing. I needed... help." He said awkwardly, as if the very word tasted dirty on his tongue. "The first week, was astounding... The level of energy I had was invigorating on its own, and I never became distracted once I set my mind to something. I finished two college applications in a single evening." He said, his eyes wide at the memory of such overwhelming positivity. "But, needless to say, it did not last." He sighed, shaking his head dejectedly.

"I found myself suddenly paranoid all the time. I could not sleep again, even when I tried." He explained, as Taylors heart ached for his friend, and the obvious struggle he'd been living with. "Of course, Mrs. Montoya then became suspicious..."

"Which is why she made you stay behind that day..." Taylor recalled, biting his lip as he lowered his gaze to the floor. "So the snake..."

Aleister sighed, finally meeting Taylors gaze briefly. "It is the only explanation which makes sense." He said, returning his gaze to the road. "... Mr. Red put that snake into Mrs. Montoya's desk to protect me, and my reputation." He said slowly, shaking his head despondently. "It is my fault, that she's in the hospital... and it will be my fault, if she dies."

"That's not true, and you know it." Taylor said quietly, turning to stare out his window in an attempt to hide the guilt and grief he knew must be showing on his face. "... There was only ever one of us who was to blame." He muttered, his hands curling into fists in his lap. He drew in several quick breaths, trying to calm the awful clamouring of his heart. "So." He said suddenly, distracting himself from his own turbulent emotions by reminding himself of his friends. "What are you gonna do now?" He asked, turning back to Aleister, to see the pale boy glaring at the road ahead determinedly.

"First, I'm going to destroy those damnable pills." He said firmly, his lips twitching in faint amusement as Taylor exaggerated an excited cheer. "Then," he added, his amusement fading as his eyes narrowed. "I'm going to do whatever I must, to prevent Mr. Red from hurting anyone else. After that however, I'm... at somewhat of a loss." He said, chuckling faintly as Taylor smiled at him.

"I would suggest talking to your aunt, and reminding her you're actually not either one of your parents, or her. Shockingly." Taylor suggested, snickering when Aleister sighed and rolled his eyes at him.

The pale boy glanced over at him, his pale cheeks colouring with pink. "I, ahem... I am sorry, Taylor." He said awkwardly, staring ahead as Taylor raised a brow at him in confusion. "I know, I have no right to ask anything of you... but-"

"But you're gonna ask me not to tell anyone anyway," Taylor snorted, laughing humourlessly as he shook his head. "Despite the fact that I haven't yet."

"... I merely request time." Aleister confirmed, glancing over at Taylor. "That I might fix this." He added, his piercing gaze sincere in his determination. "Please."

Taylor snorted, a small grin hitching the corner of his lips upward. "For what it's worth Aleister, I do understand why you did it... Stupid as it was." He said, shaking his head as his expression darkened. "Your aunt holds you up to an impossible standard, dude. Anyone would crack under that kind of pressure!"

"That does not excuse my actions." Aleister said softly, shaking his head as he pulled off the highway and turned into town.

"No, it doesn't." Taylor agreed, smiling up at his friend warmly. "But you do deserve a chance go make things right."

"I... appreciate your discretion, Taylor." Aleister sighed, noticeably relaxing as he turned the car into the hospital car park. "And I assure you, I'm going to do everything in my power to fix this." He said, finding a space beside Rebecca's car and sliding in beside it.

"Looks like the others beat us here." Taylor huffed, shaking his head as he got out if Aleister's car, imagining the rest of their friends childish teasing when they met up inside. "You ready to head in?"

"One moment." Aleister said thoughtfully, and Taylor turned back to the car, to see Aleister leaning across the passenger seat, loading the pill bottles into an old fast food bag. "There's something I must do first." He said, looking up to meet Taylors gaze briefly, before getting out the car and moving toward a narrow alley between departments of the hospital, where he shoved the bag of pills into a large trash can. "There. Be done with you, damned shortcuts." He sneered, scowling at the bag hatefully.

"Proud of you, my dude." Taylor said, clicking his tongue and bumping his fist to Aleister's shoulder fondly, as they headed back out of the alley and around to the front of the building.

"Thankyou, Taylor." Aleister said sincerely, a small smile gracing his lips as they walked into the hospital together. They chatted amicably as they walked through the lobby, touching on lighter subjects such as homecoming and the many good shows Aleister had been missing out on; and Taylor was just launching into a detailed explanation of the emotional depth of Derek Hale, when an outraged cry had him stopping dead in his tracks, his heart seeming to stop altogether.

"How dare you show your face here?" Snarled a voice he hadn't heard in almost four years, though it still haunted the most awful of his dreams. "After everything you've done? Isn't it enough my son is in this place? Have you come to finish him off too?!" 

Taylor swallowed heavily, looking across the hall to see a short woman with dark, curly hair. Her hands were set upon her hips, a furious glare twisting her otherwise beautiful face into a mask of hatred. "Hello, Mrs. Soto..." He said thickly, his voice small as his heart fluttered weakly in his chest, threatening to break at any moment.

"The gall of you..." Diego's mother spat, as Aleister raised a brow and looked between the pair in obvious surprise. "How dare you even set foot here? You're nothing but a menace, getting everyone around you into trouble and leaving them behind when you've had your f-"

"If I may intercede your... spirited accusations for just a moment, madam-" Aleister drawled, only to trail off when Taylor quickly laid a hand on his arm, glancing up at him with a discreet shake of the head.

"You'd sooner take a step back from that boy, and save yourself and anyone who knows you a world of heartache!" Mrs. Soto scolded, glancing up at Aleister in recognition. "You should know better than anyone what he's capable of." She said pointedly, as Aleister's brow creased in confusion.

Taylors head spun from the unexpected encounter, his heart clenching as he tried to fight off the guilt and grief which the woman's spiteful comments induced. "We just..." He began, flinching and looking away when Mrs. Soto's outraged glare returned to him. He took a deep breath, and a pointed step backwards. "I... I'll see you back at the car Aleister, just uh, say sorry to everyo-"

"Are you ready to-" another voice turned Taylors heart to ice, his tumultuous emotions rising like a tidal wave within his heart, choking his airway as he looked up to see another scowling face directed his way. "What is he doing here? I thought we made it quite clear, that our son was not to associate with the likes of you any longer... Tell me he's not in here because he was sneaking off to meet yo-"

"No! No, he wasn't I swear!" Taylor protested, his gut twisting viciously as he turned his gaze away. "He... he wasn't..." He choked, feeling a sense of dizziness begin to overwhelm him, clawing through his thoughts and distorting them beyond coherency.

"Why should we trust a thing you say?" Mr. Soto asked, his eyes; so similar to Diego's, clouded by anger and suspicion. "You lie, easier than breathe."

"Taylor happens to be one of the most honest people I've become acquainted with." Aleister sneered, frowning between the Soto's as they turned their suspicious expressions toward him. "Perhaps you should trust your sons judgement, when it comes to picking his own friend-"

"The last time we trusted our sons choice of friend, he ran off to follow this troublemaker into the woods." Mrs. Soto scoffed, grimacing as she shot a scowl at Taylor. "And a child died. We don't want our son to be the next life lost because of whatever trouble you're into. He's already come close... Why can't you just leave him alone..?!"

"Now see here..!" Aleister cried, interrupting the increasingly hysterical verbal abuse loudly, his eyes widening in surprise as he realised the depth of the blame which Diego's parents had saddled upon Taylors shoulders.

"Aleister, it's fine." Taylor said quietly, his chest feeling oddly empty as he turned and raised a hand over his shoulder. "Just, tell the others I felt sick and went home..." He said, trying to hide his deadened gaze and infuse some false cheer into his voice.

"Taylor, don't be ridicu-" Aleister scoffed as he reached for Taylors shoulder, only for Taylor to flinch away from his touch.

"I'm sorry... Mr. Soto, Mrs. Soto... I hope Diego wakes up soon." He choked, before hurrying away through the main entrance, stumbling blindly around various cars until he'd found Aleister's, only to finally recall that the pale boy had in fact locked it.

Wow... I think they actually hate me more than they used to. He thought, dazedly looking around the car park and settling his gaze upon the small alley between departments. He frowned for a moment, before deciding the small privacy the location offered, would be quite the relief. Not that I blame them, what with Diego up there and all... He thought, walking slowly into the alley and making his way to the trashcans, where he allowed himself to sink dejectedly to the floor; his mind swirling with the familiar accusations, and the guilt which they infused him with. 

The worst part is... they aren't even wrong. They're just saying what nobody else will. He thought, curling his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them tightly, as he stared vacantly ahead. My parents couldn't even bring themselves to actually say it... They just, left. I don't think they'd have come back if it were me in the hospital, instead of Diego... He thought, his eyes welling with tears as he swallowed thickly, his throat tight with the severity of his turbulent emotions. Hell, I don't think they'd care... even if I died. He thought, burying his face in his hands as his tears began to force their way free, his eyes stinging fiercely as he continued to try and deter them.

The sound of someone clearing their throat loudly, made Taylor gasp and look up sharply, surprised to see Zahra and Aleister standing awkwardly at the end of the alley. "Sooo..." Zahra drawled, pointing at the trashcan behind him. "You know Diego's not in there, right?"

"What the-?" Taylor choked, hurriedly wiping his eyes as he scowled at his friends. "Jeez, ever heard of a thing called privacy, guys?" He snarked hotly, shuffling to his feet and turning around, as he tried to regain control of himself. "What the hell are you even doing out here?"

"Came to find you, so we can lead you to the weird back room they've stashed Diego in." Zahra replied, shrugging her shoulder as she raised a heavily pierced brow at him. "What are you doing in this creepy ass-" she fell silent abruptly, interrupted by a sudden noise from inside one of the garbage cans, which made Taylor yelp and jump away from the container. 

He looked at the garbage can suspiciously, as the muffled but insistent scratching continued. "What in heavens..." Aleister drawled, his eyes wide as he cautiously approached, casting a careful glance over Taylor.

"It's, uh... probably just a raccoon or something, right?" Taylor offered weakly, his heart racing as the strange sounds continued, turning his blood to ice in his veins.

"We thinking regular raccoon?" Zahra asked, her large boots clunking heavily on the pavement, as she stomped over to join Taylor and Aleister. "Or supernaturally controlled, attack raccoon?"

"Not. Helping." Taylor growled, throwing Zahra an irritated glare, as the fierce girl merely flipped the bird at him in response.

"Should we not... check?" Aleister offered reluctantly, glancing at the others, before looking back to the trashcan distrustfully. Taylor imagined the pale boy was no doubt recalling the previous morning in Mrs. Montoya's classroom, just before the snake attacked.

"I guess... One of us should, at least..." Taylor hedged, shifting his weight uneasily, as he drew in a deep breath and forced back the emotional upheaval he felt from his encounter with the Soto's.

"Probably." Zahra said, shrugging her shoulder as she gestured to a side door. "Unless you want some poor, unsuspecting canteen worker to get a faceful of evil raccoon when they're taking out the trash." She added blandly, as Taylor rolled his eyes and grimaced.

He sighed as he shook his head, rubbing his neck awkwardly as he steeled his nerve as best he could. "I've got this." He said quietly, striding over to the trashcan and pausing only for a second, before throwing back the lid. "... Oh my god..." He gasped, his hand rising to cover his mouth as he stared inside with wide eyes.

"What?" Aleister demanded, stiffening in preparation to either flee or defend himself at Taylors word. "What is it?!" 

Wordlessly, Taylor beckoned his friends over, still transfixed by what he had found, staring down into the trashcan in blatant disbelief. Aleister and Zahra exchanged an uncertain glance, before edging up behind him and peeking over his shoulder to see the small bundle of fur within, nestled among crumpled newspapers and takeout containers.

"Prrow?" The small black kitten meowed, cocking its head curiously at the three startled faces peering at it.

"Oh..." Taylor breathed, his heart swelling with sympathy and compassion for the tiny animal.

"My..." Aleister murmured, his brows raised in surprise as he examined the small creature carefully.

"Kitty!" Zahra cried gleefully, startling both Taylor and Aleister as they exchanged a hesitant glance, before they turned as one to look at her in surprise. "What?" She demanded, her cheeks staining red in embarrassment from her outburst. "Shut up." She growled, as Taylors lips twitched in amusement, and Aleister quickly covered his own mouth to hide a tiny grin.

The kitten flattened her ears to her head and backed away, baring tiny fangs and hissing in a way Taylor knew was supposed to be vicious and scary, but instead only made his heart melt. "Whoa, little girlie..!" He soothed gently, smiling down at the distrustful ball of fur. "It's okay... She looks scary, but she won't eat you." He teased, laughing as Zahra hit him hard in the shoulder. "We won't hurt you little kitty, promise." He chuckled softly, reaching out and holding his hand as still as he could, allowing the kitten to creep forward and sniff his fingers curiously.

"Mrr..." It purred, seeming almost to hum thoughtfully. The tiny creature watched Taylor suspiciously, as it put one paw on his hand, and then slowly added the other. Taylor snickered at its continued suspicion, but when nothing terrible happened to the kitten, it finally seemed to decide to trust him, and climbed into his palm.

"See? You're okay, aren't you?" He asked reassuringly. "Yes you are, now Taylor has you... Yes, you are." He cooed affectionately, the kittens purr rumbling softly against his hand, as he gently lifted her out of the garbage can and cuddled the small bundle to his chest, delicately tickling behind one of her small ears.

"Kittyyyyy..!" Zahra gushed, before slapping a hand over her mouth and scowling, as Taylor raised a brow at her, a devilish grin spreading across his face.

"I believe we may have broken Zahra." Aleister hummed conversationally, chuckling when Zahra finally gave up on her ruined reputation, and grinned down at the little animal.

"Shut up." She groused, holding out a finger for the kitten to sniff. "You ever tell a soul about this, and I am officially cursing you both to die virgins." She threatened darkly, scowling at Taylor especially. He swallowed thickly, a distinct sound of distress escaping his throat, appeasing her as she smiled back down at the kitten. "Did you dorks know cats can sense evil spirits?" She asked, tickling beneath the kittens tiny chin, as Taylor exchanged a quiet snicker with Aleister. "Also, lookit her little paws!"

"Oh my god, Snape, how can you even stand to be around yourself right now?" Taylor finally burst, laughing at Zahra's obvious embarrassment.

"Shut up, loser." She sneered, scowling at him as she tossed her Mohawk over her shoulder and hunched her shoulders defensively. "I care about some stuff..." She reluctantly admitted, her cheeks staining red as Taylor chuckled.

He shook his head as he looked back to the kitten, his amusement fading as he examined her carefully. "She's so skinny..." He murmured, frowning down at her sadly. "I think she's a stray."

"Okay, as much as a black cat is super on brand for me," Zahra said, sighing heavily as she gazed longingly at the kitten. "My dad is crazy allergic."

"My aunts terrier despises cats..." Aleister said, gently trailing a fingertip over the kittens small head. He sighed, glancing at the others before narrowing his eyes to look down the road. "Perhaps the vets office down the block, might be able to find her a home..?"

"No way, assface." Zahra scoffed, smirking when Aleister visibly bristled at her name calling. "Taylor is going to take this kitty home with him... and also, let me go over to play with said kitty every day." She said firmly, meeting Taylors amused gaze when he looked up at her. "Possibly twice a day." She added after a moments thought, raising a brow as if daring him to correct her.

Taylor huffed, looking down at the adorable bundle of fur, purring contently against his chest. "Furball's going to be totally thrown off by this invasion, you know. First Mal, now you..." He chuckled, glancing up at Zahra in amusement. "And apparently Snape here is gonna be practically moving in..." He laughed, as Zahra fist pumped the air. "So, I now have a roomie, a crow, a magic ice fox... and a cat."

"Prr-row!" The kitten purred happily, as he held the kitten up to his face, allowing her to head butt him softly in the chin.

"How adorable." Aleister drawled, rolling his eyes despite the slight smile quirking his lips. "I didn't realise your goal in life was to open a petting zoo, Taylor." He chuckled, as Taylor stuck his tongue out at him. "Well, don't keep us in suspense. What are you going to name her?"

"Cattywampus!" Zahra offered, snapping her fingers together eagerly, as Taylor blinked in surprise of her enthusiasm. "Grimalkin! Ooooh, what about Jiji?"

"Uh, what about no?" Taylor snorted dryly, ignoring the middle finger and scowl he received from his friend in return. "I think I'll stick with..." He hummed, eyeing the kitten thoughtfully, as she batted at his necklace with her paw curiously. "Oh man, you are such a little..." He complained, moving her higher up so she couldn't bat ay his chain, only for her to instead begin playfully batting at the net top covering his shoulder. "Urgh, Fiddler!"

"Mew!" The kitten purred happily, turning and curling herself beneath his chin, as he raised a brow at her.

"Um, that... was not what I intended. But, I guess, if you like it..." He said, laughing when her rough tongue licked his chin briefly. "Okay, you might just be the cutest, tiniest thing I have ever seen in my life... I am just gonna have to spoil you rotten!" He insisted, chuckling at her happy purring.

"Come along then, Fiddler. You cannot come into a hosital, so you shall have to wait in the car..." Aleister sighed, turning and leading them to his car, and opening the back door. Taylor moved to sit himself in the back, but frowned when Aleister scoffed and pressed a hand to his chest, carefully taking the kitten and setting her in Taylors schoolbag on the back seat.

"Hey, why my bag?!" Taylor protested, as Aleister pointedly ignored him, opening the window enough to allow the kitten some fresh air, before quickly shutting her inside. 

"Do not soil by seats!" The pale boy ordered sternly, glaring through the window as the kitten sat in Taylors bag, sniffing at it curiously.

"Uh..." Taylor began, glancing between his friends as they turned towards him. 

"Taylor, I don't profess to know what on earth just happened with Diego's parents..." Aleister said dismissively, waving a negligent hand to silence Taylor before he could actually speak. "Clearly there are certain issues, and if you do not wish to discuss whatever has happened, then that is your business. However-"

"Urgh, shut up already with the long words." Zahra snorted, rolling her eyes as she looked over at Taylor. "The Soto's are gone, and you're coming to see Diego. Now. So we can then go back to yours and play with the kitten. Who I am gonna call Chaos, because your name sucks ass." She said, folding her arms over her chest and raising a brow at him expectantly.

Taylor looked back at the car, clearing his throat as he fidgeted awkwardly. "I... I don't think its such a good idea that I-"

"Taylor start walking, before I make you." Zahra threatened, raising her hand and wiggling her fingers dramatically, as Taylor grimaced. "Seriously, you're wasting kitty play time. Move it. Now." She ordered, scowling as she clapped her hand on his shoulder and steered him towards the hosital entrance.

As his friend led him through the hospital, Taylor couldn't help the anxiety which bubbled up into his throat, his eyes darting nervously down every hallway, expecting more venomous vitriol to be throw at him any second. "Guys, I really don't think-" he tried to protest again, as Zahra led him to a small room at the back of the hospital, and shoved him through the doorway. 

Taylor swallowed heavily, as he spotted the rest of his friends, clustered around the bed, where his best friend lay; still and quiet. "Oh, Diego..." He murmured, his rising panic smothered by a thick blanket of grief over his friends condition. He approached slowly, and barely noticed as Sean vacated his seat, guiding Taylor to sit in his now empty chair. 

His eyes traveled to the heart monitor beside him, beeping out a soft and regular rhythm, as Taylors heart clenched tightly. "Diego..." He muttered quietly, shifting forward to the edge of his chair, and leaning on the rail of Diego's bed, gently touching his fingertips to his friends motionless arm.

"Jeez..." Zahra said quietly, frowning as she looked Diego's sleeping façade over carefully. "He looks so... it's like something drained the life out of him."

Taylor stared at Diego's peaceful, sleeping face, recalling all the times they'd had secret sleepovers; the times they'd gone to the movies, just to ogle the hot leads, the times they'd sat in a coffee shop with nothing to do but talk. He recalled every moment he'd spent with his best friend; and every time he'd failed to help prevent this situation from occurring. "Can he..." He croaked, quickly clearing his throst and trying again, wiping his eyes as he felt a dampness trickle over his cheeks. "I mean, does he know..? That we're here?"

"We don't know..." Sean said softly, his large hand falling onto Taylors shoulder as he frowned down at his obviously sensitive state, glancing to Aleister, who discreetly shook his head. "Nurse was here a minute ago... They said, Diego's in a 'vegetative state'."

"Are they aware of what caused it?" Aleister asked quietly, picking up Diego's chart from the end of his bed and leafing through quickly. 

"They have no idea." Quinn murmured, her eyes damp as she leaned over Diego's legs and gazed up at him. "He just... he just won't wake up." She said, swallowing heavily as she sat up and looked over at Taylor. "This... this is what I was facing, the last few months of my life... It seems so unfair, that he's facing it; now that I won't."

Rebecca sniffled, hugging herself as she stood behind Quinn, looking up at the ceiling in an attempt to hold back her tears. "Guys... what if he never wakes up?"

"Becca!" Taylors heart thundered in his chest, the sound of blood pounding in his ears almost enough to blur out the various hissing voices which scolded the fiery redhead. He shook his head slowly, raising his eyes to Rebecca as she gazed at him apologetically. 

Aleister sighed and moved to stand beside her, awkwardly patting her shoulder, as Quinn leaned back in her chair and squeezed Rebecca's hand. "The nurse also said, we should talk to him, though." Quinn said, sniffing as she wiped her eyes, and looking around the group determinedly. "They said, Diego... might be able to hear us."

"It's probably bogus, dudes." Raj said, shaking his head sadly as he gazed down at Diego's prone form. "They always say crap like that, to make you feel better."

"Does it work?" Zahra asked, standing off in the corner, huddled in on herself as she stared emptily towards Diego.

Raj glanced at her, before shrugging his shoulder loosely. "... Yeah, kinda." He said, as Taylor finally trailed his fingers down Diego's arm, curling them over his hand and squeezing tightly.

"C'mon, assbutt..." He whispered, and for a moment, he was sure he felt the slight pressure of Diego squeezing back. 

He looked up in surprise, as a barely audible whisper escaped his lips.  "Taylor..." He breathed, as Taylor choked and pressed his free hand to his mouth briefly.

"He does know we're here..!" He gasped, a wide smile bursting forth on his face, as hope flared to life in his heart. "Diego..? Dude, if you can hear me... We're gonna make this right, okay? I swear it." He said firmly, his hope fanning his fury at the spectre which had hurt yet another of his friends. "I'm gonna make Redfield pay for whatever it is he's done to you, dude... and I'm gonna fix it all. I'm gonna keep him from hurting anyone else. I promise, assbutt..." He said, swallowing thickly as he curled his second hand around the first, clutching Diego's hand between them and raising it to his cheek.

"I'm gonna find a way to bring you back, Diego..." He whispered, too involved in his promise to Diego to care about the fierce stinging in his eyes. "And this time, we're all gonna be there for each other... No more hiding, or burying things and dealing with it alone. I promise... So please, please wake up..." He pleaded, his heart racing as he noticed the tiniest hint of a smile curving the corner of Diego's lips, as he seemed to relax ever so slightly.

"Hey... If you wake up, there's someone really cool waiting to meet you in my bag... She's in Aleister's car-" Taylor said, grinning as Zahra began to laugh, and Rebecca turned a furious shade of red to match her hair.

"Taylor!" She scolded, glancing to the doorway to make sure she hadn't attracted a nurse. "I don't think he needs anythin' of the blow up variety to help him recover!" 

"Dude, if that's what he has in his bag, he needs to take it back and change its gender..." Raj sniggered, trading a brief high five with Sean, before they both hung their heads beneath Taylors frown.

"Don't talk about Fiddler like that, she's a lady..." He said, glaring around them all reproachfully as they all fought off giggles.

"If she's such a lady, why'd ya call her Fiddler?" Rebecca asked, rolling her eyes as Taylor scowled at her.

"Has anyone else been in to see him?" Taylor asked, pointedly refusing to answer and changing the subject.

"We ran into Diego's parents as they were leaving." Raj said, scratching his chin thoughtfully, and missing Taylors sudden flinch. Aleister glanced at him worriedly, but Taylor firmly locked his eyes on Diego's sleeping face, carefully containing his emotions until he was alone again. "His mom was on the phone though, some dude called Dr. Chambal."

"Another doctor?" Aleister queried, his brow furrowing as he drew the focus away from Diego's parents. "Is this a specialist they have coming in?"

"Actually..." Quinn said slowly, biting her lip as she glanced around the others, before looking toward Taylor worriedly. "Based on what they were saying... I think it may be Diego's therapist."

Taylor sighed heavily, raising a hand to scrub over his face tiredly. "Yeah... He's uh, especially since he started drinking, i mean... he's been talking to her awhile." He admitted, glancing up at their shocked faces briefly. "He never told her any of this stuff, but, they made him..." He trailed off briefly, shaking his head before pushing on again without thinking. "I think mostly, they were hoping he would tell them it was all my fau-" he broke off with a cough, shaking his head as he looked back at Diego longingly.

An awkward, slightly confused silence hung over the group, and Taylor silently cursed himself for his slip. He grit his teeth tightly, assuming Aleister would inform the others of their encounter with the Soto's later. And then the pitying looks will begin... He thought sourly, swallowing hard in an attempt to wrestle down his frustration and grief. Thank god they don't know about my parents... He thought, snorting inaudibly as he shook his head.

"Diego, buddy..." Sean finally sighed, breaking the tense atmosphere around them all. "I really wish you could tell us what happened."

"Nnnnn..." Diego groaned, his peaceful expression twisting slightly, as he slowly turned his head just a few degrees to the right. Taylor followed the motion, and saw Diego's clothes folded neatly on the bedside table.

"Dude, I am saying right now, if there is anything remotely dodgy in those pockets of yours; I'm having Furball use you for snowball practice." He warned, desperately wishing his friend were able to laugh. He sighed dejectedly when there was no reaction, looking again to Diego's clothing. "Alright, fine. Wait a second..." He groused, patting down Diego's clothes until he felt his cell phone through his jeans pocket. He quickly dug the device free, and turned it on eagerly. "He didn't tell us what was going on..." He choked, looking around his friends quickly.

"But, maybe he told someone else..." Sean said, realisation dawning in his eyes as he met Taylors gaze.

"He sent us all those weird texts the night he disappeared..." Taylor said thoughtfully, his fingers hovering over Diego's phone screen. "His other texts, might ne able to tell us more."

"Diego..." Rebecca began uncertainly, glancing between the phone in Taylors hand, and their not quite sleeping friend in the bed. "Ya really want us goin' through ya phone?"

The group waited with baited breath, Taylor with his heart pounding thickly in his throat, watching hopefully for Diego's reaction. After several long seconds, Diego's head finally moved again; the ghost of a nod.

"Well, the choice falls down to you, Taylor." Aleister said, drawing in a deep breath, before exhaling heavily through his nose. "You know Diego best, after all."

Taylor looked up at his friend, grimacing at the thought of going through such personal things, and admittedly, terrified of what he might find. "In for a penny, in for a pound..." He huffed, shakily bringing up Diego's menu and opening his text messages. "Okay... the first messages about the therapist this was back in September, which... admittedly, is when he first started acting a little distracted." He said, grimacing as he hesitated to open the message from Diego's mother. He cleared his throat and shifted on his chair, forcing himself to tap the message and quickly scanning through. "Uh... Basically he and his mom almost arguing about not arguing about a therapist again, and she suggested a link for a... text therapist." He said, nodding thoughtfully as he looked at the link which his friend had briefly shown him at the time. 

"They started talking a few days later. Diego... he always said she was kinda cool, but he could never take a text counsellor seriously. He said he made the effort to appease his parents... made jokes about the whole thing being the plot of some bad daytime drama..." He said, his voice becoming smaller as his throat constricted painfully. A slow frown marred his brow, as he scrolled through the first of the therapists chats, pausing at the end and cocking his head. "He told her.. he felt alone..." He said slowly, his eyes rising to the group, noticeably darkened by grief and confusion. "That he was scared."

"What did he have to be afraid of?" Quinn asked curiously, biting her lip as she moved to reach for Taylors hand, only for him to carefully retract it from Diego's bed. Her crystalline eyes turned sad, as she drew her hand back, gazing at the others knowingly. "I mean, this was all long before the creepy stuff started happening... right?"

Taylor shook his head, his heart feeling torn in two by Diego's obvious turmoil. And I never noticed... He thought, closing his eyes and drawing in a deep breath. Well, we always knew I made a shitty friend. He thought grimly, opening his eyes and quickly skimming to the next batch of messages. "The next bunch is, after thanksgiving... He went to his uncles cabin, and then-" he paused, cocking his head thoughtfully as he recalled Diego's change in behaviour upon returning. "He was out of school a few days... Which is weird in itself, because he usually comes in even when he has the worst illnesses. There's a few messages from his mom, mostly unanswered... From the sounds of it, he locked himself in his room for three days." He said quietly, his hand tightening around the phone, as he looked up at Diego and leaned back in his chair.

Was I too demanding..? Just, too lost in myself and how much I missed him, to realise he wasn't right himself? He wondered bleakly, rubbing his eyes briefly as he came to question whether he and his best friend were quite so close as he'd believed. He sighed, pushing aside his self doubt as he raised the phone again and frowned at the next batch of messages. "We traded a few messages, but nothing... nothing like this. He spoke to his therapist again though. He said... He started having nightmares, when he was up at his uncles cabin over thanksgiving about... about when we were kids." He said pointedly, glancing around as his friends all shifted uncomfortably. "He said he still wasn't ready to talk about that though... and she eventually admits that she believed he had PTSD." He said, swallowing thickly as he ran a hand through his hair. "The next big batch is February." He sighed, leaning back slightly to stare at the ceiling.

"Winter formal..." Rebecca said, nodding her head thoughtfully, as she met Taylors brief glance. "Did you guys goto that big party at-"

"Nah," Taylor said, shaking his head as he sat up straight again. "We had a two man drinking party back at mine. Heh, Diego won." He huffed sadly, clicking his tongue in a way which told them all, that winning was not a good thing. "He started freaking out, saying he could see something in the woods out behind my house, so I went round closing all the curtains and locking every window and door... I thought... I thought he was just drunk..." He said, shaking his head at his own negligence.

"Taylor, you couldn't have known-" Quinn began, but fell silent when he rolled his head o his shoulders, looking at her with a raised brow. 

"I think everyone here knows I could, and more to the point; that I should've." He said quietly, before clearing his throat and waving the phone at them all. "He mentions it here, that he felt bad for scaring the crap outta his friend-"

"How come he doesn't say who?" Sean asked, frowning as he read the messages over Taylors shoulder. "He even goes out of his way to make it seem like he's talking about a girl..."

"I expect that he felt it was a necessary precaution." Aleister said, looking at Taylor with a sudden knowing gleam in his eyes. "In case his parents ever read his phone, and found out he was still in contact with Taylor."

"They didn't know?!" Quinn gasped, as Taylor rolled his eyes and threw Aleister a withering glare, which the pale boy was entirely unaffected by.

"This is so not the point." He said firmly, gesturing again to Diego's phone. "His little therapy buddy had an idea for him to get over his issues with the woods." He said, scrolling through the messages with a faint frown. "Advises him to take small steps... To start out sitting near the woods, and the next week, take a few steps closer and so on..." He hummed thoughtfully, tilting his head as he saw the others all noticeably flinched.

"That's what he was trying to do?!" Raj cried, his eyes wide in disbelief. Taylor nodded blankly, exhaling a heavy sigh as he scrolled through more messages.

"After that, its all little things through the summer." He said, swallowing thickly at the small progresses his friend had made. "A step into the woods, a picnic five feet in... He was working his way up to it. All the way up to last week." He said, clenching his free hand into a fist as he cast a betrayed look at his motionless best friend. "You goddamn... Idjit!" He burst suddenly, startling the others as his eyes welled with tears of frustration, guilt and grief. "Why the hell didn't you tell me? I might be an ass, but Jesus Diego... I'd have come with you! I'd have done anything to prevent this-" he choked off at the hint of a sob, glancing backwards as Sean's gently set his hand upon his shoulder.

"Maybe that's exactly why he didnt tell ya, Taylor... He wanted to prove it was all just, a stupid nightmare from when we were kids, sure..." Rebecca said, her grey eyes soft with sympathy. "But he also didn't wanna run the risk of ya bein' with him, 'cause he didn't want ya to get hurt."

Look how well that turned out. Taylor thought sourly, grimacing as he looked back at the phone and blinked in surprise. "This is the last one... The same night he text all of us. He sent it at five fifteen..." He said quietly, pausing briefly before reading his friends last messages aloud. "I'm standing at the edge of the woods, for what I hope is the last time. Just wanted to say thanks for all your help, because once I beat this, I can-" he broke off suddenly, blinking in surprise.

"What is it..?" Zahra asked, frowning as she moved slightly closer to the bed, standing to the side of Quinn and Rebecca.

"... Once I beat this, I can help my friend beat it too. I know that it eats them up inside, and once I can show them it was never their fault; they might finally be able to move on too." Sean read, frowning at the message as Aleister's eyes darted toward Taylors shell shocked expression.

Stupid... stupid assbutt... Taylor thought, a quiet gasp escaping his lips as he blinked and forced himself to continue reading the rest of Diego's final messages. "I'm going in tonight, all the way to where it happened. To end this... once and for all. I'm going to walk into that house, and tell Mr. Red he's not real. And he never was. And... he doesn't scare me anymore." He bit out, before lowering the phone to his lap, unable to stand looking at it any longer.

"The therapist didn't reply til five hours later..." Sean murmured, plucking the phone from Taylors lap with gentle fingers. "She explained he was being preemptive, that he would still have to deal with this over the following years, and that she hoped he was taking a buddy with him..." He paused, looking around the group slowly. "Half hour later she re-read his last message and asked who Mr. Red was... but Diego never replied. He must've already been in the woods by then." He said quietly, setting the phone back onto Diego's clothes, his hand trembling slightly.

"Diego..." Taylor whispered brokenly, his heart aching for all the times he apparently should have been there for his friend, and all the times he had apparently failed him. "I'm so sorry, buddy... I promise dude, I'm gonna find a way to help you." He said, sniffing as he wiped his stinging eyes quickly. "And when you wake up, I'm gonna be there for you. Whatever you need, assbutt." He said, leaning forward, and squeezing Diego's hand as he let out a quiet sigh.

"We all will little doodlejump," Raj said, scowling as he shook his head. "And more than that quack doctor, dudes. She's the reason he went to face Mr. Red! 'Cause she said it was all in his head!"

"We all did." Quinn scolded, glaring at the large boy. "The doctor didn't tell him to go and do that, Diego wanted to! For himself, for us for..." She paused, swallowing as she looked over at Taylor sadly, watching him as he gently toyed with the paper tag around Diego's wrist. "For Taylor." She said quietly, before turning back to Raj with her frown back in place. "That doctor did the best she could, with the limited information Diego gave her. I dread to think how guilty she must be feeling."

"Almost as much as Taylor, one would imagine." Aleister sniffed, rolling his eyes when Taylor flashed him a half hearted, irritated glare. "Besides which... It did seem like she helped him rather a lot. Indeed, Diego seemed to improve a great deal in dealing with everything, until..."

"Until Mr. Red screwed everything up." Zahra supplied, as Aleister fell silent, seemingly hesitant to complete voicing his thoughts. "Again." 

"Everything that's happened..." Taylor said distantly, shaking his head slowly, as he seemed to stare right through Diego; straight through the hospital wall itself, and all the way to the familiar building which haunted his dreams. "Everything started when Diego went into the ruins."

"Well, that makes sense I guess." Rebecca sighed, tugging at the end of her ponytail, as she worried her lip. "I mean, that's how it all started ten years ago, right?"

"One of us goes in, and it wakes up Redfield." Taylor said thickly, closing his eyes as he recalled the first time he'd stepped inside the ruins; and of the lives which might not be in danger now, had he just listened, and stayed back with his friend. "Then more of us show up, and his power grows..."

"So, what..?" Raj huffed, frowning in confusion as he looked around the group uncertainly. "Mr. Red used Diego as bait? To lure us into the woods, and increase his power?"

Taylor twitched, frowning as something about Raj's words seemed to strike him as familiar, before his mind was suddenly filled with the terrifying memory of the fake Diego which had attacked him. "The dirt monster... it did say I was supposed to bring everyone."

"So, we don't give him what he wants. We already saved Diego, we have no reason to go back into the woods..." Quinn said insistently, as Taylor and Aleister exchanged a concerned look. "So long as we stay out, things can't get any worse!"

"I believe things may already be worse." Aleister said, coughing slightly to clear his throat. "I believe, in his own sick and twisted way... Mr. Red has been doing us favours. To get on our good side, perhaps. Make us believe he is our friend again, as he once pretended to be."

"Favours?" Sean asked, frowning between Taylor and Aleister in confusion. "Like what?" He pressed suspiciously.

"Oh, don't play dense, you know damn well." Taylor groused, glancing at him with a frown. "The bear attack, Sean. The crows which attacked Craig and Estela... and-"

"... My illness..." Quinn breathed, covering her hand with her mouth, as she stared down at her lap in wide eyed horror. Taylor reached over and took her hand, squeezing tightly.

"That one, I'm thankful for." He said firmly, his deep blue eyes blazing with sincerity. Quinn looked up at him with tearful eyes, but after taking a deep breath, she brushed them away with a small nod.

Rebecca shifted uncomfortably, chewing on her lips as she looked around the group. "I... think ya oughtta know about what happened last night, too..." She said, reluctantly telling everyone about Michelle's blackmail, and the tree creature which attacked her. "And then it just... threw me the bag, and her phone fell right out at ny feet."

"I think we have to admit it guys." Taylor sighed, looking around his friends tiredly. "This proves it. We've all had something happen recently-"

"Except you and Raj." Quinn said quietly, frowning at Taylor as he quickly fell silent. "Unless there's something you're not telling us?"

"Not so far as I'm aware..." Taylor said evasively, averting his eyes to Diego, as he slumbered on beside them.

"Okay..." Zahra said awkwardly, folding her arms over her chest. "Well, that explains why Michelle invited us to a party, but it doesn't explain why she suddenly decided to stop being such a queen bitch to Quinn."

"I don't think that has anything to do with Mr. Red, even if he could affect peoples minds, I doubt he'd get far in hers." Taylor said, glancing at Quinn as she shook her head vehemently.

"No way!" She insisted, exchanging a knowing glance with Taylor. "There's no proof that Mr. Red can do anything like that. Michelle is just, she's acting more like herself again. The real her, from before..." Quinn's voice rose to a shout before she trailed off abruptly, glancing at Sean as the sports star sighed guiltily. Diego seemed to flinch at the loud noise, his brow furrowing as if in pain.

"Nnnnn... don't..." He murmured, as Taylor sat up sharply, scooting closer as the others gasped around them.

"Diego, buddy? Can you hear us?" Taylor pleaded, his eyes searching Diego's face, as his friends eyes seemed to move beneath his eyelids. His heart soared with hope, a wild flame which flockered eagerly at the thought of his friend waking up. "Are you there?" He murmured urgently.

Diego spoke again, his voice barely a whisper. Taylor leaned closer, straining to hear him, when the lights flickered suddenly. Taylors heart lurched in fear, as Diego's hand shot upwards suddenly, and clamped tightly around his wrist. "Diego! What the hell-"

"Don't... fight..." Diego rasped, his grip only growing stronger as Taylor struggled to try and pull free, until he held Taylors wrist in a painfully tight grasp. The beeping of the heart rate monitor sped up, the beats coming fast and irregular.

"Ow! Diego, let go!" Taylor yelped, trying to pry Diego's hand free of his wrist with his other hand. "Dude, you're hurting me!"

"No... helping..." Diego mumbled raggedly, his chest hitching abruptly with his uneven breaths. "... help friends..." He said slowly, as Sean lunged forward and grabbed ahold of his arm.

"Dude, let g-!" He said, scowling at the effort he used trying to remove Diego's hand from Taylors wrist. Diego's free hand twitched, and Sean gasped as he went sailing backwards through the air, slamming into Zahra and Raj and sending all three of them crashing to the ground.

"The hell?!" Raj cried, as Taylor cried out in shock and fear, looking them all over worriedly, before trying again to pry his wrist free of his best friends tight grip.

"Oh my god..." Rebecca gasped as the lights flickered again, watching with wide eyes as Diego slowly sat up. When he spoke, his voice was not his own; but a terrible, cold whisper that seemed to fill the room.

"All... better now..." He rasped, as Taylors eyes slowly widened, realisation weighing in his stomach like a stone. "Everyone... together..."

"No..!" Taylor choked, as the lights went out entirely, plunging the room into darkness. He resumed his struggling against Diego's grip, but it wouldn't budge. "Get out of him, you bastard!" He snarled, about to begin clawing at Diego's fingers, when he suddenly realised that doing so would genuinely hurt his friend.

"Taylor!" Quinn cried, standing beside Rebecca and gazing at him worriedly. "What do we do?!"

"Just stay back!" Taylor yelled, glancing around them all with his brows knit tightly together in concern and pain. "He's too strong with all of us together! I don't... I don't want him to hurt any of you..."

"... Okay." Quinn agreed, watching him desperation in her crystalline eyes. "But what do we do? We have to-"

"Staaaayyy..." Diego rasped slowly. Taylor choked, as wind began to howl from nowhere, and before his eyes the room warped and stretched, the back wall falling away into the darkness.

"Taylor!" Aleister called urgently, raising one arm over his face, while using the other to hold Quinn and Rebecca back, protecting them from the wild wind with Raj and Sean's help. The monitors beeps continue to quicken, until they bled into an unsteady keening sound.

"Diego..!" Taylor cried, staring at the familiar swirling darkness in horror, before turning back to his eerily calm and seemingly still sleeping best friend with an agonized gaze. "Diego, if you're in there, please! Let me go!" He cried as he glanced back to the darkness, remembering the first time such a vicious wind had tried to steal him away. All my fault... He thought distantly, a vague sense of apathy and dejection welling in his heart.

"Don't go... all better now... now we play..." Diego murmured, as Taylor shook off the rising emptiness in his gut, looking over at his friends worriedly. 

"Better..?" He queried, his gze flickering between his friends, Diego and the swirling blackness which seemed so desperate once again to consume him. "How the hell are things better?!"

"No... I helped... all better now..." Diego sighed dreamily, as if a serene euphoria had come over him. Taylor grimaced, squirming against the tight hold on his wrist.

"Yeah, this is not my idea of 'better'!" Zahra scoffed, scowling at Diego as she finally managed to raise herself off the floor and braced herself against the wall. "So, how about you get the hell away from us!" She demanded, gesturing wildly and causing the chair beside her to fly toward Diego. He growled, and the chair deflected, shattering as it tumbled down the black tunnel.

"Zahra..!" Taylor yelled, his eyes widening as he was struck by a sudden idea. "That's it! Use your powers!" He called quickly.

"Her what now?!" Sean exclaimed, staring between Taylor and Zahra in shocked disbelief.

"Urgh, I just tried!" Zahra fumed sarcastically, scowling at Taylor as if he were an idiot. "It didn't work!"

"No, not like that!" Taylor said quickly, his eyes watering from the pain of Diego's tight grip. "Use your powers on me!"

"What?!" Zahra yelped, visibly shocked as her eyes widened, shaking her head in disbelief as she took am uncertain step backwards.

"Use your powers to pull me over to you!" Taylor insisted, crying out as he felt Diego's grip tighten.

"I... I can't!" Zahra called, shaking her head more insistently, as she worried her lip in an uncharacteristic show of concern. "What if I hurt you?"

"Urgh, I'm already being hurt!" Taylor cried, scrabbling as Diego's hand uselessly in an attempt to free himself. "You really think anything you do is gonna make things worse right now?!" 

Zahra hesitated a second longer, before nodding and clenching her hands into fists, her breath coming fast and ragged as she steeled herself with a determined scowl. "Okay, c'mon, kickass powers..." She muttered, narrowing her eyes as she concentrated. "Urgh, work you stupid-!"

Taylor gasped, as he was suddenly yanked backward, his wrist finally tearing free of Diego's grasp. "No!" Diego whined, as Taylor crashed into Zahra, knocking her back to the floor as light suddenly flooded the room again. By the time Taylors eyes had adjusted, the hospital room had returned to normal. "Not... better..." Diego muttered, letting our a long, shuddering sigh. His body turned limp, and he fell bonelessly back onto the mattress.

"Diego!" Taylor cried, sitting up and reaching for his friend, though he dared not get ant closer lest Mr. Red possess him again.

"Is... is it over..?" Quinn asked, peeking around Aleister and Sean's arms, as the pale boy lowered his other arm from his face. "Taylor!" She gasped, rushing around the boys to crouch by his side and help him to his feet.

Taylor winced at the deep marks, already purpling as bruises on his arm, while Aleister edged carefully closer to the monitors beside Diego's bed. He checked them carefully, before tentatively laying the back of his hand to Diego's forehead. "It appears so..." He said, quickly drawing back his hand and moving away from Diego. "For now."

"Is anyone hurt?" Rebecca asked, looking around them all worriedly, as Taylor squirmed away from Quinn's gently prying fingers.

"Only on my everywhere." Zahra groaned, scowling at Taylor accusingly. "Next time, I want a plan where no one body slams me onto dingy linoleum." She snarked, as she accepted Sean's offered hand and allowed him to help her to his feet.

"Sorry..." Taylor muttered, gazing over at Diego longingly. "Least it worked though, I guess..." He said, sighing as his heart yearned for him to approach his friend again.

"Dude..." Raj said slowly, exhaling heavily as he scratched his head beneath his hair tie. "So, what the hell was-" the large boy paused, as a nurse hurried in to look at Diego's heart monitor. They looked from the monitor to Diego, their brow furrowing.

"We were, um... Just leaving." Rebecca said quickly, hurrying to the other side of Taylor and helping Quinn to drag him from the room. "Sorry."

"... Diego-" Taylor called, watching the nurse pick up a piece of the splintered chair with a perplexed expression on their face, as the rest of his friends pulled him away.

The group gathered in the lobby, where Taylor finally shook himself free, his arms curling about his chest protectively as the others all took turns signing out of the visitor log. "Okay, what the hell was all that?" Quinn demanded, looking over at Taylor worriedly.

"Bad." He murmured, swallowing thickly as he narrowed his eyes out the main entrance and into the distance. "It was bad."

"Indeed, and may we please discuss that... thing?" Aleister enquired, swallowing heavily as he ran a hand over his slightly mussed hair. "Was that-"

"It was him." Taylor said quietly, staring vacantly into his long ago memories, of a dark tunnel which tried to suck him out of existence as a child; and now again.

"I never thought..." Rebecca gulped, shaking her head as she looked over at Taylor worriedly. "I mean, it felt so real."

"It was real, little dudette." Raj countered quietly, glancing around the group uncomfortably, as nobody even attempted to deny his conclusion.

"Also, uh..." Sean coughed, nudging Zahra somewhat playfully. "Zahra has freaky mind powers now?"

"Apparently." Zahra agreed, shrugging her shoulders dismissively, as Sean let out a sigh and cracked his knuckles nervously.

"I don't know about you guys..." He finally huffed, looking around them all with a hesitant smile. "But I'm gonna need about ten square feet of pizza to process all this." He said, raising a brow when several of the group perked noticeably. "You guys in?"

"Sure..." Taylor sighed dejectedly, about to move to the exit, when Quinn gasped and drew his attention to the desk.

"This is-!" She said, turning with her eyes wide in surprise. He frowned as he approached the desk, with Zahra close behind him. Quinn gestured to a clipboard with the signing out pen, where a list of names caught his eye.

"Diego Soto, unresponsive..." He began, his throat constricting as his mind flashed back to his friends current condition. "Drake Walker, unresponsive... Poppy Patel, unresponsive... Olivia Montoya, unresponsive..." He said, his brow slowly furrowing as he read the long list of names aloud, until an irritated looking nurse suddenly snatched the clipboard away and glared at him. "Uh, sorry. I... was just looking for the sign out sheet." He lied, having never actually signed in. 

The nurse grabbed their sweater and with a final suspicious glare, they walked away, leaving the desk unattended. "Nice..." Zahra said, tipping her chin toward the computer. "They left the computer running. Bet you fifty bucks I can hack into the system... give us a chance to do some digging." She said, waving her brows at Taylor suggestively.

"You want to break into the hospitals private records?!" Quinn gasped, glancing around to make sure no staff were nearby.

"Say it a little louder, quinn, I don't think they heard you in Germany." Zahra snarked, as Quinn flushed guiltily. "Look," Zahra continued, leaning closer to the pair. "There's, like, a dozen other people in comas, who've been admitted over the past week. We gotta know why."

Quinn bit her lip, fidgeting awkwardly for a moment, before nodding in reluctant agreement. "Okay. If you're gonna do it... I'll help. But you better decide fast!" She said, a determined frown furrowing her brow.

"Why not..." Taylor sighed, only partially invested in the chance to flex their detective skills, exhausted from his encounter with Diego. "Lets do it." He said, running a hand through his hair as he tried to focus his thoughts. "If it can help us save Diego, I'm all for it."

"Cute." Zahra drawled, raising a brow at him. "Should we all put our hands in or something? Do a little cheer?"

"I am aware of your sarcasm, but I would totally make you do that if we weren't so short on time." Taylor huffed, his humour somewhat returning as Zahra's lips twitched, her shoulders sagging slightly in what could have been mistaken for relief. "Okay, genius. Show us what you can do. Quinn, where do we wanna look?"

Zahra and Quinn organized their friends quickly, setting them into watch positions, before the three of them crept around behind the desk. Zahra quickly sat in the chair, typing furiously as she scowled at the screen. "Come to momma..." She muttered, finally hitting the enter key and successfully entering the hospital database.

"Quinn, you've seen this thing in action before... What are we looking for?" Taylor asked quickly.

"Try admissions first, its basic but they all gotta be checked in." She whispered, as Zahra's fingers flew across the keyboard, searching through the computers directory.

"Here." Zahra said suddenly, clicking on an icon labeled 'inpatient records'. She opened it up, and quickly sorted them by the most recent.

"Well?" Taylor asked, biting his lip as he glanced between the jumble of information on the screen and his friend, as she stared eaptly at the data and seemed to absorb it like a sponge.

"This is the same list you were looking at, before nurse grabby got pissy." Zahra explained distractedly, looking through all the names with narrowed eyes. "Look at this; all patients unresponsive, all admitted in the last week..."

"Can you get anything more specifi-?" Taylor began to ask, as Zahra clicked on a name and brought up more details about one of the patients.

"'Found near Nightingale Ave'..." Quinn read over Zahra's shoulder, frowning between them briefly. "This one was picked up near the tree line on Aspen Street... Taylor, these are all-"

"The streets surrounding the woods." He finished thickly, shaking his head as his hand slowly curled into a ball. "Yeah, I know..."

"Guys, look." Zahra said, taping the bottom of the screen and scrolling downwards. "Looks like a buncha notes a... Dr. Montrese, from pathology." She explained, as Taylor frowned and read the notes for himself quickly.

"'Experiencing a resurgence of similar epidemics in Westchester's history'..." He said, his brow furrowing in confusion, as he turned to look at Zahra. "English, please."

"The docs listed out some dates for us, about this sorta thing happening before, which is handy as fu-" She explained, rolling her eyes at him, before trailing off suddenly, her eyes widening in surprise. "Whoa, goes right back to start in the eighteen hundreds..."

"Eighteen hundred, nineteen seventy..." Quinn said slowly, looking up at Taylor and Zahra, her crystalline gaze marred by fear.

"... And ten years ago..." Taylor said, gesturing to the final set of dates on the screen with a trembling finger, as he swallowed thickly.

"Crap, that's the signal..." Zahra said, grimacing and rising from the chair quickly, as an intricately whistled melody drifted to their ears. Taylor glanced around, to see Sean waving his arms wildly. 

"Damn..." He muttered, moving to to shut the window Zahra had left open, when something else caught his eye.

"What are you waiting for?!" Quinn whispered furiously from the doorway, her eyes lit by fear and concern. "Come on, Taylor!"

"Just... one more minute." He murmured, hitting print before quickly closing the window. Zahra and Quinn moved to the other side of the counter, blocking Taylor from view as bed they could.

"Taylor, seriously..." Zahra snarked, scowling at a passing visitor. "Hurry the fuck up!" She hissed lowly, as Taylor glanced up to see a nurse approaching form over her and Quinn's shoulders. He ducked down, staring at the printer desperately, as only one page remained.

"Taylor!" Quinn gasped, as the printer settled. Taylor snatched the papers up, stuffing them into a nearby manila folder and tucking them beneath his top. He crawled out from beneath the counter, just as the nurses feet appeared in front of him.

"Oh thank god! There's my contact!" He gasped loudly, a huge smile of relief spreading across his face. "Oh my god, it's so lucky I found it... These things are hellishly expensive, huh?" He mimed picking up something off the floor, before scrambling to his feet and hurrying away to rejoin the rest of his friends.

"I do hope whatever you just found was worth it, Taylor." Aleister sneered, frowning at him as he shook his head. "That was a close call..."

"Trust me, it was." Taylor said, looking around his friends quickly. "We got something..." He assured, as Zahra snorted.

"Yeah, like the fact that all those other patients?" She said, cocking her head back towards the hospital. "They were also found around the woods."

"And, that this isn't the first time that there's been an epidemic of this kind..." Quinn added, exchanging a high five with Raj, and bumping her other fist to Zahra's.

"I'd say that's some pretty good info, doodlejumps..." Raj said, clicking his tongue in approval.

"Not to mention..." Taylor said slowly, motioning everyone closer and drawing the manila folder out from under his top. He flicked it open, and showed them the printouts he'd made, allowing them all to read through together.

"So what's it say?" Sean asked curiously, leaning closer to scan through quickly. "Oh wow, it's reports of other epidemics." He said, his eyes widening as he gestured to the top of one of the freshly printed pages. "Looks like the doctor wrote some notes up top here..."

Rebecca swallowed heavily, her grey eyes rising slowly to meet Taylors blue. "... 'some cause for concern. In each past incident, the influx of patients, is closely followed by... a massacre'." She read aloud, her voice trembling too much to continue.

"'It is unclear how these events are related,'" Aleister drswled, picking up from where Rebecca had trailed off. "'And, the deaths that follow, are not always of such volume... See article B, from November third, two thousand seven..."

"November third..." Raj said thickly, shaking his head in pained disbelief, as Sean reached over to squeeze his shoulder supportively. 

"'Each time, the events are the same.'" Quinn continued, as the group tried to offer sympathy and support to Raj, while also listening to the redhead. "'A sudden influx of unresponsive patients, followed by the death of one or more persons, followed by quiet.'" She said, biting her lip as she looked up at Taylors grin expression.

"Everything leads back to Redfield..." He said thickly, choking on the tense silence which fell over the group; guilt and grief alike, clawing painfully at the back of his throat.

"It just keeps gettin' worse..." Rebecca sighed, shaking her head as she wrapped her arms around herself. "How are we supposed to do anythin' about this?"

"There must be a way..." Aleister muttered, scowling at the pavement as he traced a finger across his chin thoughtfully. "We just-" he trailed off with a sigh, and for a long pause, nobody else tried to speak.

Taylor looked around his friends sadly, all seemingly lost and adrift within their own fears. Finally he drew in a deep breath, and trampled down his own emotions so he could plaster a reassuring smile on his face. "Guys, I know we can do this." He said, the tiniest of smiles gracing his lips. "We just have to stick together." He said, slowly letting his eyes meet each of his friends gazes. "I am honestly, more terrified than I have ever been in my life... I don't know if I actually have the strength to handle all of this... But I don't have to. Not alone." He said, swallowing heavily as he dropped his gaze to their feet for a moment.

"We tried pushing each other away, dealing with things alone." He said thickly, shaking his head dejectedly. "And look where it got us... Look where it got Diego." He said, a small gasp escaping him as he raised his head and held himself as tal as he could. "So, no more going it alone. We have each other again now... Together, we're stronger than any of us can be on our own. Together, i know we can do this." 

For another long minute, the tension in the air remained, and Taylor was just beginning to worry it would never break, when his friends all snorted and sniggered as one. "Pfft, who fed Taylor the 'sappiest bullshit' dictionary?" Zahra scoffed, smirking as she flipped him the bird.

"Good heavens Taylor, I've had to endure the drama club for weeks on end..." Aleister sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Even they cannot produce such a vomit inspiring display of emotional prattle."

"Dude." Raj snickered,clapping Taylor on the shoulder, as he slowly turned red and scowled around his friends.

"Oh Taylor," Quinn giggled, her eyes crinkling in genuine amusement. "You're so cute when you get all inspirational." She teased, poking her tongue out at him briefly.

"Wait til I tell my brother about this..." Rebecca said, sighing as she shook her head. "I wish I'd got it on camera to show him..." She added wistfully.

"Man, and I thought coach gave lame speeches..." Sean groaned, his arms wrapped over his ears, as a wide smile spread across his face.

"Okay, you know what? I take it back, you're all awful people and I don't need any of you." Taylor groused scathingly, scowling at them all as he flushed furiously in his embarrassment. 

"Okay, okay..." Sean chuckled softly, raising his hands in placation. "But seriously, I asked about pizza like, forever ago... so, can we take care of that first?"

"Yeah, I'm gonna need an entire pizza, just for me." Zahra agreed, raising a heavily pierced brow at them all. "Also, anyone who touches said pizza is gonna get their hand burnt clean off."

"Hmm..." Aleister hummed, his lips twitching on amusement briefly. "Pizza Mega?" He suggested, as the Taylor continued to simmer and sulk.

"Obviously." Rebecca said, drawing Quinn into a side hug as they giggled at Taylors lingering bad mood.

"Oh man, we haven't been there in ages..." Raj said, his tone reminiscent as he beamed a wide and excited grin around the group. "Think they still have those little honey packets for the crust?"

"Wonder if anyone beat my high score on the Meteor Madness cabinet..." Zahra wondered distractedly, scowling at the possibility.

"I hope they still have our corner booth free..." Quinn said, as they began to usher each other toward Rebecca and Aleister's cars. 

Taylor watched them a moment, his mutinous expression softening at last, as they laughed and teased each other. He swallowed thickly and nodded his head, a small smile hitching his lip lopsidedly as he trailed behind them into the night.

Chapter Text

9.

Party Favours.

Ten years ago...

"Oh no, no no no-" Taylor chanted, ducking a branch as he raced through the woods, his breath ragged as he pushed himself to run as fast as he could. He's closing in! He thought, glancing around in desperation as he came to realise; there was no escape. I have to hide! He thought urgently, spotting a hollow of damp, rotting roots and quickly scurrying inside. A daddy long legs walked between his fingers, as Redfield's voice whispered all around him.

"... where... are you, Taylor?"

A centipede skittered across Taylors knuckles, up his wrist and inside his sleeve. "Aah!" He gasped, as thick vines seized him, dragging him across the forest floor and out into a clearing.

"... Found you..."

Taylor hung upside down in front of the houses dark door, and laughed as the vines set him gently down upon his feet. "You cheater! You peeked!" He pouted, giggling wildly as Redfield tried to deny his accusation.

"... Nnnnoooo..."

He turned upon hearing a shriek of laughter, to see Raj tumbling out of the branches of a nearby tree. "Oof!" He puffed, folding his arms over his chest petulantly. "No fair, dude! You didn't tell me you could control birds and stuff!" He protested, as Taylor laughed at him. "They tried to peck me in my eye!" He said, looking over at his cousin kicking their feet, as invisible claws yanked them by the arms from out behind a tree stump.

"Hahaha! Mr. Red, stop! You're gonna rip my clothes!" They laughed, feigning a scowl as they were set on their feet, and jabbing an playfully accusatory finger toward the house. "You play too rough!"

As Mr. Red dragged the rest of Taylors friends from their hiding places, he heard a whisper of laughed rising off the stones, and in the broken window above, he spotted a shadowy figure; watching them.

"Who's in there?" He called, his eyes widening in surprise as he stared up at the window. The figure did not seem bothered by his sudden awareness of them, in fact, it did not even seem to react to his call at all.

"Huh?" Diego hummed, trotting over to stand beside him and frowning at his friend. "Who's in where, Taylor?" He asked, raising a curious brow when Taylor glanced at him.

"There's someone inside the house." Taylor said quietly, pointing up to the shadowy figure in the window for his friends to see.

"Mr. Red..." Zahra gasped, staring up at the window in a mixture of awe and disbelief. "Is that you? The real you?"

The vines receded from the clearing, as the figure in the house shrank back into the darkness. "Aww, it is him." Rebecca said, frowning as she walks over to join them all. "He's shy..."

"Mr. Red, you should come outside!" Raj's cousin called eagerly, bounding over to the houses doorway excitedly.

"... Nnnoooo..."

"How come?" They pouted, disgruntled at the rejection. Taylor frowned himself, his heart twitching sadly at the hesitance of their mysterious friend.

"... because..." Redfield whispered, his strangely disjointed voice sounding full of regret and sadness. "... you'll be... scared..."

"Aw," Raj's cousin giggled, flapping their arms at their sides as they smiled at the house playfully. "You won't scare me." They assured kindly.

"Me neither!" Sean quickly added, jumping over a fallen log to join the group, a wide and excited grin on his face. He began to chant eagerly, and some of the others quickly joined in. 

"Cooome out cooome out, cooome out!"

"Uh, dudes and dudettes, maybe we shouldn't-" Raj began hesitantly, only to quickly be drowned out as everyone else joined in, the chant steadily growing louder and louder.

"Mister Red, come out to play!" Taylor called loudly, only for the whole group to fall into sudden, stunned silence; as the shadows within the house pulsed, a coil of darkness bleeding out from the doorway. 

It slowly boiled into a shifting black shape before their eyes. "Hello..." Redfield whispered, in his eerie but playful tone.

"Aah!" Quinn gasped, stumbling back a step and falling over a log, almost pulling Rebecca down with her.

"Holy crap!" Diego choked, grabbing Taylors arm tightly, as he turned to frown at his friends reaction curiously.

"What the heck is that?!" Raj cried, his eyes wide as he hurried to gather his younger cousin into his arms, hiding them behind his larger body.

"... friends..." Redfield whispered, his glowing eyes widening amid the dark shadows of his lanky, shifting body. "Play!"

"Everyone... calm down!" Taylor scolded, scowling around his friends as he felt they overreacted to Redfield's revelation.

"Are you freakin' kidding me, dude?!" Raj cried, gesturing wildly toward where Redfield hovered in the broken houses doorway. "Look at that thing!"

Redfield tried to get closer, but winced at the bright light streaming through the tree canopy. He shielded his face, recoiling, and receded back into the house. "... nnnooo..." He whispered, a sad sounding sigh as he retreated from view. "... no friends..." He murmured, the shadows fading away slowly, disappearing from the doorway. "... no... play..." Taylor felt his heart lurch with pity and sadness, as their friends whisper turned almost inaudible. "... all... alone..." The forest fell still, as Taylor tried to catch his breath, his eyes welling with tears of sympathy.

"Did you guys... see that?" Diego choked, his eyes wide as he stared at the house and shook his head in disbelief.

"What was that?!" Raj cried, visibly panicking as he struggled to reconcile what he'd just seen in his head. "What is he?!"

"Who cares?!" Aleister cried, scowling around them all fearfully. "Let's hurry and get the hell away from here!"

"B-but..." Quinn huffed, rising to her feet and dusting herself off, a dull blush staining her pale cheeks as she peeked up at them all in embarrassment. "He's not even following us. Maybe, he doesn't want to hurt us?"

Taylor and the others followed her gaze back to the house, where the shadowy shape of Redfield hovered in the dark doorway of the house once again. "I don't think he does..." Taylor said quietly, taking a tentative step toward the house. "I think... It seems kinda like he's trapped here."

"How?" Aleister scoffed, rolling his eyes derisively. "With magic?" He sneered, as Taylor rolled his head toward him and raised a pointed brow.

"Oh, because magic is so impossible, Aleister." He drawled, snickering when Aleister's pale countenance flushed pink with embarrassment. "Mr. Red has shown us plenty of magic already... It wouldn't surprise me to fins there's more out there we don't know about."

"Yeah... some kind of evil spell." Zahra said, snapping her fingers thoughtfully. "Like if he tries to leave, he gets all weak."

"Poor Mr. Red..." Sighed Raj's cousin, peeking around her larger relation to gaze at Redfield's house sadly.

"We gotta help him..." Diego murmured, his hand slipping into Taylors and squeezing gently. "But what can we do?" He asked, as the group exchanged uncertain glances.

"Oh, I know!" Quinn gasped suddenly, a bright smile lighting her face. "You guys remember last year, when ny illness was really bad, and I couldn't leave the house for a whole week?"

"Yeah, we all came over and watched movies and stuff." Taylor said, smiling back at Quinn as she giggled happily.

"Oh, I get it!" Sean said, grinning around the group eagerly. "We do that for Mr. Red! Since he's afraid of the light, we could come back when its dark and... um... go inside..."

The group fell silent, and turned toward the house as one. Taylor swallowed, thinking back to the last time he went inside the house. "It... it'll be okay, right?" Rebecca whispered, stepping closer to his other side and taking his free hand in hers.

"What is this? Hold a Taylor day?" Taylor grumbled, though he giggled when his friends both jabbed him in the ribs playfully.

"As long as we remember the rules..." Quinn said, biting her lip hesitantly, as the small group of friends came together.

"Everyone plays together." Aleister said quietly, reluctantly offering his hand into the centre of the group. "We all go, or nobody goes."

"So..." Taylor asked, watching curiously as his friends all put their hands in together,looking up at him expectantly. "Are we all going?" He asked, adding his hand to the top of the pile. He watched his friends expressions carefully, as one by one, they slowly nodded in agreement.

Taylor glanced toward the door, where a sad pair of eyes stared out at them. "I'll go, because I trust Mr. Red." He said, smiling toward the shadowy figure. "He's our friend! So let's do it!"

"We'll come back here at night..." Diego agreed, grinning at Taylor excitedly. "And we'll go inside. Together."

"And how are we supposed to convince our parents to let us?" Raj cried, clearly still unsettled by the idea, but unwilling to be the only one against it.

"We'll think of something." Taylor said confidently, laughing when Zahra began eagerly pumping the air with her fist. 

"Yes!" She cried, bouncing on her feet as she looked around them all eagerly. "Spooky-scary sleepover!"

As everyone began to eagerly discuss sleepover plans, Taylors gaze drifted back towards the ruins, where he glimpsed a pair of eyes, glowing in the dark doorway.

Present day...

Taylor sat on his bed, staring out the window vacantly, as Quinn applied some light make up in his mirror. Their final day of school had passed in a blur, as had the majority of his Saturday, shopping with Quinn and Rebecca for the big event that night; Michelle's party. 

"Are you still thinking about what happened at the hospital?" Quinn asked quietly, glancing at Taylor's reflection in the mirror, as his hand noticeably curled around his injured wrist.

"Hmm?" He hummed, looking up at her innocently. "Oh, you mean the part where Diego came out of his coma, just to become the mouthpiece of a creepy forest entity?" He asked lightly, pretending to think for a minute before turning to look back out the window. "Nope, haven't thought about that at all." He crawled sarcastically, laughing when a scarf suddenly collided with his head.

"There's no need for the lip, Mr broody!" Quinn huffed, her cheeks puffing out in her ire. "Now stop being such a pouty pants, and start getting ready!" She ordered firmly, wrinkling her nose as he rolled his eyes and flopped backwards onto his bed.

"I am sooo ready to unwind..." He sighed, grinning as he threw his arms in the air. "Woo!" He cheered, before quickly propping himself on his elbows and smirking over at the redhead who had stolen his mirror. "I'm gonna let my metaphorical hair down, and really chill." He said, frowning suddenly as a thought occurred to him. "Hmm, maybe not all the way down, since we'll still be knee deep in enemy territory..." He hummed, grabbing a pillow and peeking his eyes over the top suspiciously.

"Ooh, you!" Quinn hissed, throwing a stuffed bat at his head, as he snickered and dropped his pillow back into place. "Michelle isn't that bad... all the time..."

"Uh, yes she is." Taylor snorted quickly, smiling innocently when Quinn turned to look at him with narrowed eyes.

"Well," she said, tossing her hair over her shoulder as she pointedly ignored his comment. "At least a party might get everyone's mind off the whole... Mr. Red situation for a while, you know?" She said, turning back to the mirror again, as she adjusted her cleavage.

"Must you do that in here?" Taylor grimaced, hiding his face behind his hand as he snickered. "My bedroom has long been an anti cleavage zone... You're ruining my whole image here..."

"Taylor, you don't have an image." Quinn replied, utterly unfazed by Taylors comments or the way his jaw dropped in shock. "You're just a peacock, who struts about and preens yourself before any single guy you see."

"Quinn!" He gasped in outrage, lobbing his stuffed bat back at her head, his eyes wide at her accusations. "Why does everyone keep calling me that?" He whined, as Quinn giggled quietly but otherwise ignored him. He watched her continue to get ready for a while, pouting at her until he finally couldn't help but snort with laughter. "Well... At least one of us is excited about this." He huffed amusedly.

"I kind of am..." Quinn admitted readily, her cheeks darkening slightly as she bit her lip. "I, um, I feel pretty good about tonight." She said, drawing in a deep breath and sighing contently. "It's crazy but, even with everything going on right now, I think things are finally starting to go my way!"

"Well, if anyone deserves a little luck in their lives; it's you, Beautiful..." Taylor huffed, shaking his head as a frown slowly creased his brow. "Are you really, really sure that Michelle's sudden... change of heart, has nothing to do with Redfield?" He checked, immediately feeling guilty as she shuddered at the mention of his name.

"I know... it seems that way, Taylor, but there's no proof... he, can even do something like that." Quinn said, frowning uncomfortably. "Maybe she really is trying to turn over a new leaf, like Becca said..."

"Quinn, sweetie, I love that you're so beautiful and kind and just the cutest thing ever..." Taylor said, reaching for her hands and pulling her to stand in front of him. "But people who want to turn over a new leaf, generally don't need to be blackmailed to do it..." He whispered teasingly, as Quinn drew her hands back with a hiss and swatted his shoulder.

"Taylor!" She scolded, trying to scowl at him but failing utterly when he expressed the first genuine smile she'd seen since they'd first gone to the hospital.

"Alright, alright, don't hit me again!" Taylor protested, holding up his hands in surrender. "I get enough of that from freakishly strong handed, Rebecca..." He grumbled, sighing briefly as he grabbed Quinn's hands again and kissed them gently. "For what its worth though... I hope she's right." He said, smiling up at Quinn as she bit her lip and a light blush dusted her cheeks. "Oh god..." He said, feigning a sudden epiphany. "Can you imagine a world where Michelle is actually... tolerable?"

"Oh you!" Quinn giggled, swatting his shoulder again before moving back to the mirror. "Of course I can, silly... I keep trying to tell you guys, she wasn't always like this."

"You know, it is insanely impressive how positive you are about her." Taylor huffed, shaking his head as he watched the redhead move about his room with ease, as if there had never been a ten year gap that she hadn't done so. "I mean. If you were a guy, then I would be really turned on by that quality." He added, laughing when his stuffed bat collided hard with his head again.

He looked over at Quinn's reflection, to see she was blushing furiously. "Hush you..." She said, before squirming indecisively for a moment. "We... um, well... We kissed, once, actually..."

Taylor balked suddenly, his brows rising as he tried to search back through his memories. He looked up in surprise when Quinn began to loudly cackle with laughter. "Oh my god, the horror on your face!" She choked, turning to brace herself against Taylors dresser as she tried to catch her breath. "Not you, you idiot!" She laughed, shaking her head as Taylor visibly sagged in relief. "I don't know if I should be offended that you're so obviously relieved about that..." She giggled, as Taylor quickly shook his head.

"Trust me, you shouldn't. I just," Taylor hedged, clearing his throat as he thought quickly. "I wouldn't want you to have wasted something so important as a first kiss on the likes of me..." He said humbly, beaming her an innocent smile as he fluttered his eyelashes. Quinn snorted and rolled her eyes at him, which Taylor decided to take for forgiveness. "So," he said, quickly folding his legs beneath him and looking up at her with rapt attention. "Spill, now. What happened? Dish the dirt, beautiful." He insisted, as Quinn giggled again and bit her lip as she blushed.

"Well... It was back in middle school. At that, um, Girl Scout camp, I told you about..." She said slowly, peeking up at him when he gasped loudly.

"Scandalous!" He exclaimed, waving his hands emphatically to hurry her on. "More, more; I need to know how you tamed the Wild Blonde Beast..."

"Taylor..." Quinn scolded, though her smile belied her feigned irritation. "Urgh, fine..." She groused, her smile softening as she thought back. "We were up super late talking about stuff... She asked if there were any boys I liked, and I said no... then, she asked if there were any girls I liked..." She said, biting her lip as her grin spread, the blush staining her cheeks darkening. "Oh, Taylor..." She sighed, walking over to the bed and sitting beside him, leaning against him as he curled his arm about her shoulders. "I've always liked Michell, you know? Even before I knew that it was a crush, I just... I admired her. Maybe because she wasn't ever afraid to stand her ground... Maybe, just because she was all the strong things I felt I lacked in my life, because of..." She trailed off, trying to fight off her guilty, giddy grin as she glanced up at him with a joyful gaze.

"Well..." Taylor huffed, squeezing her shoulders gently. "At least that hasn't changed." He said sourly, rolling his eyes as Quinn chuckled against his shoulder.

"That was the night we kissed and, I don't know why, but..." She sighed, shrugging her shoulders lightly as she looked over at him. "Everything just kind of felt... right. Which, you know... was kind of a big deal for me back then."

Taylor grimaced, sighing as he ran his free hand through his hair. "Bad enough I knew Sean used to kiss her, now I'm gonna picture her sucking your face too..." He complained playfully, as Quinn laughed and shoved him away, before pushing to her feet and turning back to him.

"I know you're just trying to look out for me, Taylor, and I appreciate it..." She said, smiling widely as Taylor grimaced at the impending 'but' he could hear coming. "But... You don't know her like I do." She said, as Taylor rolled his eyes and sighed knowingly. "It's a risk I'm willing to take."

"Okay, okay, fiiiine..." He finally groaned, throwing himself back on his bed to pout at his ceiling. "But just remember I got your back. She hurts you again, and I'm feeding her to Furball." He said, the small fox raising his head at the sound of his name from where he was curled ob Taylors pillow. 

Quinn laughed and grabbed his hands, pulling him to his feet and into a tight hug. "Oh Taylor, don't ever change..." She said lightly, as Taylor huffed and kissed her cheek lightly. "Now, enough with all this serious business." She said, exaggerating a frown and successfully making Taylor laugh. "We've got a party to get to, and you still need to change mister!"

"Change? Pfft, have you seen how I look right now?" Taylor scoffed, taking a step back and gesturing to himself with a smirk. His cocky expression fell to a pout, as Quinn raised a brow, flatly unimpressed with his everyday getup. "I like this outfit..." He mumbled, tugging at the sleeve cuff of his net shirt fondly.

"And its a very nice outfit." Quinn said in placation, hiding a giggle by pinching her lips together. "But, how often do you get to go to a party like this?" She said, waving her brows suggestively as Taylor huffed a d rolled his eyes. "You should go all out!" She finally pleaded, grabbing his uninjured wrist and tugging it lightly as she stamped her foot in petulant temper. "Really wow everyone!"

"I already wow everyone." Taylor snorted, flashing a smug grin. "With my sparkling personality!" He laughed, as Quinn's expression darkened, her cheeks puffing out in outrage.

"The only person impressed with your 'sparkling personality', is you, Taylor." Quinn said dryly, her hand settling on her hip as she frowned at him.

"Then I will be excellent company for myself." Taylor sniggered, laughing to himself. "Besides, I'm bound to have more interesting conversations with myself than with Craig or Estela-"

"Taylor! I did not spend all day shopping with you and Rebecca, just for you to show me up tonight!" Quinn barked, interrupting him and causing his eyes to widen in surprise at her sternness. "You try something else on right now, or so help me I will strip you down and change you myself!" She threatened, jabbing a finger into his chest for emphasis.

Taylor sniffed, turning his nose up as he glanced at Furball and whispered loudly. "Some people have no class..." He huffed, before stalking past the fuming redhead. "I guess I can at least try something else on. Just to see how it looks..." He drawled haughtily, as if it had been his own idea to change.

"Gosh, don't hurt yourself with all that enthusiasm there, Taylor." Quinn huffed, rolling her eyes as he picked out some of the new things he'd bought.

"You realise if I actually wear this jacket, its gonna clash something awful with my hair." Taylor groused, as he reluctantly pulled off his gaudy jewellery.

"Then why did you buy it?" Quinn sighed, shaking her head as she turned her back to give him privacy.

"Oh, stop pretending to be modest, you know you can watch." Taylor muttered, almost laughing when Quinn turned back with a devious grin. "I bought it because its tacky, expensive and beautiful... But that doesn't mean I ever have to wear it." He explained, sniggering as he pulled his vest and beloved net top over his head and tossed them on his bed, startling Furball off his pillow when they landed too close for his liking.

"Well, put it on anyway. We can sort your hair after, if we need to." Quinn insisted, offering him the plain black shirt to slip into. Taylor muttered continuously in petulant defiance of her bossiness, but still did as she ordered. He quickly traded his jeans for the new suit trousers he'd bought, buckling only a single belt around his waist somewhat forlornly. "Stop pouting. You can go back to wearing stupid amounts of belts tomorrow... Honestly Taylor, its only one night, stop behaving like you're being punished!" She scolded, laughing at his mutinous expression.

"But-" he protested, trying to slip and extra belt around his waist for effect, only for Quinn to slap his hand away and help him into his high collared jacket.

"Okay, you have to wear that, Taylor! You look amazing!" She insisted firmly, stepping back as she held his elbows to admire her handiwork. "I don't know what you mean about the jacket, it looks gorgeous. It's just the right shade of dark red... Very rebellious, but very suave. Just right for you... And your hair." She added quickly, gesturing for him to loom at himself in the mirror.

"Hmm, I dunno... Isn't it over dressing a little?" He asked, though his brow rose as he examined himself, admittedly impressed by how well the outfit suited him. "I mean, I don't even like most of Michelle's friends, and you guys are..." Taylor trailed off as Quinn pointedly coughed and folded her arms over her chest, raising a brow at him daringly. 

"You don't even know who else is going." She scolded, shaking her head as she walked up behind him and wrapped her arms around his waist. "And you know, you might even actually have a good time... If you can just enjoy yourself a little."

He cleared his throat and returned his gaze to his reflection, a grin forming on his lips as he imagined everyone's shock. "Oh alright fine, I will... But only 'cause I look damn good in this outfit."

"Oh, you noticed." Quinn huffed, giggling when Taylor turned and jostled her away lightly. "So, are we finally ready?"

"I guess..." Taylor sighed heavily, raising a hand to his chest as if burdened by the weight of his good looks and great fashion sense. "As we'll ever be. Lets go, beautiful." He said, allowing her to lead the way through his quiet house to the door. "Fiddler, Furball! No eating each other! And no fighting, else you're both sleeping outside with Mal!" He called, closing the door behind them as Quinn laughed and shook her head.

They chatted and joked as they walked towards Quinn's house, taking the last turning before her road to divert down the street to Michelle's house. After a half hour more walking, they finally crossed the threshold into Michelle's living room, which was packed wall to wall with Westchester students. "Oh my god, Quinn, Taylor!" Rebecca squeaked happily, rushing up to them and throwing her arms around each of them briefly. "We're so glad ya here, right Meech?" She said, turning to the blonde with a raised brow.

Michelle winced, looking almost sick as she looked over at Taylor. "Yeah, so... glad." She drawled reluctantly, folding her arms over her chest as she scowled at him.

"Michelle..." He greeted, glancing at Quinn's shy smile and cursing himself internally for being such a heroically good friend. "Thanks for the invite." He said warmly, allowing himself a semi-genuine smile, as he bit back the warning he wished to give her. "I've actually kinda been looking forward to this." He added, as Quinn choked and stomped on his foot, flashing him a brief glare.

"I sooooooo don't care..." Michelle scathed, as she rolled her eyes. They landed on Quinn beside him, and the blonde instantly brightened. "Hey, Quinn!" She said, smiling fondly as she offered her hand to the redhead. "Remember that horrible vase my mom used to have? You have to see this new travesty she bought..."

"Well, it can't be uglier than the last one, can it?" Quinn giggled, taking Michelle's hand and lacing their fingers together, winking at Taylor as she passed him. "Be good!" She hissed at him, before disappearing toward the kitchen. 

"So, hows your party so far?" Taylor asked Rebecca, shaking his head at Quinn's obvious happiness, before turning to the other redhead in his life.

"Pretty good so far!" Rebecca laughed, winking at him conspiratorially. "Ya gonna thank me for ya invite, or what?"

"I might, once I figure out if this party's actually fun or not..." Taylor hummed, snickering when Rebecca jabbed him in the arm.

"Oh, I think ya'll find it plenty fun..." She said leadingly, bouncing on her toes briefly, before running her eyes over him with a click of her tongue. "But, even if it is a total bust, at least ya killin' it in that outfit!"

Taylor snorted and looked across the crowd, his brows rising in surprise when he spotted Jake talking with some guys near a corner of the room. "Ooohh, you're a sneaky she wench!" He said lowly, poking an accusatory finger into her shoulder. "Did you bring him here for me as a present? If so, thankyou very much... I love it..." He snickered, as Rebecca rolled her eyes and pursed her lips.

"I invited him, yes..." She groused, folding her arms over her chest as she pouted over at the corner where her brother stood. "But he's barely said hi to anyone. Those are some of his friends from high school, they're dropping off siblings mostly but they kinda made themselves at home talking to him..." She complained, though Taylor was only half listening. 

His attention was stolen entirely when Jake looked up suddenly with a small frown marring his brow, as if he sensed someone watching him. His expression dissolved into a smile when he caught Taylor looking at him, and he threw him a rough salute.

Taylor smiled slyly and winked back at him in response, causing him to laugh suddenly and shake his head as he turned back to his friends, though Taylor was immensely pleased to note the lingering grin curving his lips. 

"Urgh, weird." Rebecca complained, shivering grimly as she scowled over at her brother petulantly. "I almost forgot about ya gross crush on him... Oh my god, please tell me it don't go right back to when we were kids! Ya kinda knew each other then, right?"

"Nah, I was a little young back then, Becca..." Taylor snickered, shrugging his shoulder at her vaguely, as he continued to watch Jake from the corner of his eye. "We uh, we just... spent a little time together recently." He hedged awkwardly, finally looking away from his friends brother fully.

"Yeah, I heard about ya little flirt fests." Rebecca drawled dryly, grimacing at him as Taylors cheeks flushed guiltily. "... What?" She asked suspiciously, raising a brow at the colour infusing his cheeks.

"Nothing, I just... I mean, ahem..." Taylor coughed abruptly, his face burning under his friends scrutiny. "He uh, he gave me a ride home... after, I saw you that night... after the game..." He admitted, biting his lip to contain his guilty but unashamed grin.

"What?! I offered ya a ride!" Rebecca cried, her eyes widening in surprise, as she glanced between Taylor and her brother.

"Yeah..." Taylor snickered, glancing back at Jake, before smirking at Rebecca's shocked expression. "And now you know why I said no..."

"Urgh, this is more serious than I was prepared for..." She said grimly, shaking her head as she rubbed her brow. "Are ya, like, datin'?"

"I wish." Taylor muttered beneath his breath, running a hand through his hand as he cleared his throat. "Ahem, not that I know of... But, would it really be so weird, if I did date your brother? I mean, come on, you have to admit we'd look damn fine together."

Rebecca grimaced, trying to hold onto the expression for a brief pause, before finally laughing at Taylors worried glance. "Not really..." She admitted, shrugging as she relaxed somewhat. "I mean if we'd dated in the past, sure, but that ain't exactly somethin' we have to worry about, is it?" She snorted, eyeing him fondly as he grinned back at her.

"So, no double dating you both on the side in the future then, huh?" He teased, laughing when she groaned and shoved at his shoulder.

"Taylor if ya were interested in me, I might feel weird about ya datin' my brother..." Rebecca said dryly, glancing over at Jake with a small frown creasing her brow. "That said... Ya hurt him, and I'll drag ya sorry ass straight into those godforsaken woods, and tie ya to a tree for Mr. Reds weirdo pets to eat."

"Whoa..." Taylor balked, blinking in surprise at his friends lightly delivered but obviously sincere threat. "Hey, how come I get the 'you hurt him' speech? What if its the other way round?" He demanded suddenly, pouting at her reproachfully.

Rebecca smirked, leaning forward to kiss Taylors cheek briefly. "That's why he's got his own speech..." She said in a low, conspiratorial tone, as Taylor snorted in returning amusement. "I'm serious though, be careful with him... He's flighty by nature, and if he gets bored he's likely to take off." She warned, glancing at her brother in frustration.

"Well, I will just have to be ever so brave and face that possibility for myself." He said, feigning a pained sigh. "And I think I can reasonably manage to promise not to hurt him, too..."

"Hmm, good." Rebecca huffed, as they fell into a not quite awkward, almost companionable silence.

"... Do you think he's got a daddy kink?" Taylor asked suddenly, startling a disgusted shriek from his friend.

"Taylor!" Rebecca cried, swatting his shoulder hard as he laughed. "I cannot believe ya just put that awful imagery into my head! Now I can't get it out!" She complained dramatically, as Taylor sniggered unashamedly.

He watched her for a moment longer, grumbling to herself and grimacing as she rubbed her forehead, his smile slowly fading as he examined her. "So, I don't mean to be a buzzkill... But how're you holding up?" He asked gently, laughing when Rebecca raised her furious grey eyes to meet his gaze.

"Well I was doin' fine til about thirty seconds ago." She said scathingly,  huffing a deep sigh as she shrugged dismissively. "Considerin', ya know... everythin' that's goin' on." She said, looking up at him with a reluctant grin. "Or at least, I don't feel like I'm gonna die at this moment."

"Well hey, that's something these days." Taylor teased, drawing the fiery into a hug, and wincing when she thumped his arm again, grumbling to herself despite returning his hug.

"Oh, some of my cheer friends just walked in..." She said, drawing back from his arms suddenly, her face turned towards the door. "Do you mind if I..?"

"Not at all." Taylor said, waving his brows suggestively. "I'm gonna go say hi to Jake..." He said, winking at her as she grimaced and shook her head lightly.

"Urgh, gross." She murmured, before glancing up at him with a small smile. "Why don't ya come find me later? We can catch up some more." She suggested, squeezing his hand before walking off to greet her other friends.

Depends if I find myself somehow occupied with your brother before then... Taylor thought, a smile spreading across his face as he squeezed through the big clump of people in the living room, and made his way over to Jake. "Hey, Top Gun." He said, bumping his fist to Jake's shoulder briefly.

"Hey, Boy Scout." Jake snickered, amusement in his gaze as he turned and ran his eyes over Taylor quickly. "Becca said ya might be comin'."

"Oh yeah?" Taylor asked, his heart skipping a beat in excitement. "Does... that mean you were asking about me?" He asked, smirking when Jake nearly choked on his drink, his cheeks reddening slightly beneath his stubble.

"Pfft, no!" Jake protested, still coughing as he patted his chest. "Becca just, ya know, happened to mention it..." He said awkwardly, clearing his throat and wincing, as he carefully took another sip of his drink.

"Riiiight." Taylor hummed knowingly, before nudging Jake's shoulder with his own playfully. "Well, in any case, I'm glad I showed up." He said, averting his eyes around the party briefly in the hopes of hiding his glee.

"Hmm..." Jake hummed, pausing a moment as he knocked back his drink. "Me too." He finally admitted, drawing Taylor to look back at him.

He flushed under Jake's cerulean gaze, biting his lip as he glanced beside them. "Uh, where'd your friends go?" He asked suddenly, looking back at Jake as the pilot shrugged in disinterest, his eyes instead locked onto Taylor.

"Wandered off somewhere." He said dismissively, waving a negligent hand around the party. "They won'ta gone far though, I expect... There ain't exactly a ton of available entertainment in this town." He huffed, before shaking his head and finally raising his eyes to meet Taylors. "Ya look good tonight, by the way..."

"Um, excuse you very much." Taylor huffed, setting a hand on his waist as he jut his hip out slightly, his heart leaping into his throat when Jake glanced down to watch the movement. "I always look good."

"Aw, c'mon, I didn't mean it like that... Ya always look nice." Jake protested, though a hint of a grin twitched the corners of his lips. "That outfit just happens to look especially good. Looks a heck of a lot easier to get out of too, without the belt shop attached." He added, smirking when Taylors cheeks burnt red at the comment. "It's just..." Jake continued, frowning at Taylor slightly as he looked up to shyly meet the pilots gaze. "Ya were such a happy kid... 'til, ya know. And, it seems like every time I've seen ya lately, ya seem... worried." Jake finally explained, his brow rising curiously as Taylors grin widened.

"I'm totally fine!" He said, taking a deep breath and sighing slowly, surprised but pleased to find he was in fact, telling the truth. "Things have been a little crazy lately..." He admitted, cocking his head and running his eyes over the pilot briefly. "But, it's nothing I cant handle." He said confidently, as Jake met his gaze and hummed thoughtfully.

"Well..." He said at last, his voice thick as he set his empty glass down on the nearest available surface. "I don't wanna keep ya from ya friends, so..." He coughed, gesturing to the patio doors. "I, uh, I'm gonna... go get some fresh air."

"Sure," Taylor said, biting his lip as he stepped aside to let the pilot slip past, turning as he squeezed by, so they remained face to face, though now much closer. "Catch up with you in a bit?" He asked, as Jake smirked, stepping back slowly as he winked and offered another of his rough, two fingered salutes.

Taylors heart raced as he watched Jake move out to the backyard through sliding doors, before he dashed into the kitchen and grabbed himself a drink. "Oh my god..." He gasped, after downing a glass of an unidentified liquid, which burnt pleasantly and seemed to kill at least a handful of over-stimulated brain cells. "Oh... my... god..!" He choked, fighting off a huge grin as he recalled the pilots intense gaze upon him.

"Taylor!" A voice startled him from his giddy thoughts, and he turned to see Quinn waving at him energetically. "Over here!" She called, gesturing for him to join her and Michelle by a bowl of punch. "Do you know what you're wearing to homecoming?" She asked as he approached, grabbing his hand and gazing up at him nervously.

"I was thinking of getting a long dress," the redhead continued, as Taylor glanced toward the patio doors briefly, his face warming slightly before he forced his attention back to his friend. "But, Michelle says I should go knee length..."

"I was trying to tell Quinn what great calves she has." Michelle sneered, as if expecting Taylor to deliberately undermine her efforts. "She should totally show them off."

"What do you think, Taylor?" Quinn asked urgently, looking up at Taylor with such earnest concern that he couldn't fight the fond grin which spread across his face.

"I cannot believe the words are leaving my mouth here, but..." He huffed, pausing as if pained for a moment, before continuing in a strained whisper. "I'm with Michelle on this one."

"Wow, I never thought Taylor and I would be on the same side." Michelle said, shaking her head slowly and clicking her tongue. "But he's right to agree. A short dress will be much easier to dance in." She said, taking Quinn's hand and twirling her around, the both of them laughing happily.

"Yeah, that and I'm pretty sure you wanna get those long legs on display." Taylor snickered, surprised when Michelle actually winked at him playfully.

"I guess that's a good point." Quinn hummed thoughtfully, smiling at the obvious effort Taylor made to be nice to the blonde. "It's been so long since I was even able to dance..." She sighed wistfully, before shaking her head and looking back at Taylor curiously. "Do you know who you're going with, Taylor?"

"Me, pfft, I mean..." Taylor said awkwardly, his heart suddenly lurching as he came to realise he had no date. "... Diego and I usually either went together or skipped them, watched movies at mine..." He admitted quietly, as Quinn's brow furrowed in sympathy, and she stepped into his arms to embrace him.

"Better hurry up, or all the good ones'll be gone." Michelle scoffed, looking away with a frown as Quinn comforted Taylor over his unresponsive best friend. "And by good ones, I mean the only losers in the world who might actually date a pathetic idiot like you." She added, as Taylor flinched at the callous words. "But I don't need to worry about that... Quinn, you'll go with me, right?" She asked, looking over at the redhead as she drew back from Taylors chest.

"You just insulted one of my best friends..." She said slowly, looking over at Michelle with a small, disbelieving frown. "And, you did it deliberately." She said, shaking her head as she swallowed thickly. "I can't say I find that too inspiring for me to agree to be your date..."

"Wha, but I-" Michelle choked, her eyes widening in shock and disbelief, as Quinn chafed Taylors jacket sleeves with her palms. Taylor frowned down at her, more upset by the blatant distress rolling off of his friend than the actual barb from the blonde. 

"Hey," Taylor said quietly, brushing aside a small section of the redheads hair, before slipping his finger beneath her chin, tilting her head up and forcing her to meet his gaze. "It's okay... I knew she was only playing, right Michelle?" He lied playfully, and what he hoped was convincingly; flashing the blonde a warning glance as Quinn frowned over at her dubiously.

"Y-yeah, totally!" She said, catching his meaning quickly and plastering a wide grin across her face. "I bet he'll have the hottest date there...I mean, after you, that is..."

"See?" Taylor said gently, smiling down at Quinn in what he hoped looked like support. "So, lets not cut that pretty nose off to spite your cute little face; and say yes to the nice girl who just asked you to be her date?" 

Quinn glanced back at him, hesitating for a pause so long he thought she might still refuse, when she instead let out an excited squeal. "Okay!" She beamed, though she pointed a warning finger at the blonde. "But tone back the teasing... I don't like my friends being upset, playing or otherwise." 

"I can totally do that!" Michelle quickly promised, a relieved smile spreading across her face, as she flashed Taylor a grateful look.

"Well then... I would love to be your date!" Quinn said, practically glowing at the blonde, much to Taylors equal amusement and disgust.

"Yes!" Michelle squealed, raising a hnd to her chest briefly as she sighed. "Phew... I was so nervous about that. I'll be right back, I have got to go tell Joss." She said, moving forward to give Quinn a quick kiss on the lips, before breezing past them.

Taylor feigned vomiting, as Quinn practically squeaked in surprise and delight, though he quickly gave in to her happiness and began to laugh, when she was too absorbed to even notice his playful jibe. "And people say I'm sickening to watch." He snorted, shaking his head as Quinn bounced excitedly before him.

"Oh my god!" She whispered furiously, fanning herself dramatically. "Can this night get any better?!"

"I have some very definite ideas of what would make this a better night for me..." Taylor quipped, peeking at the patio doors again, before grabbing one of Quinn's hands and pulling her close. "But for you, the answer is obviously yes. Because your gonna dance with me. Right now."

"W-what?" Quinn choked, her eyes widening as Taylor quickly pulled her against him with a smirk. "I don't-"

"Oh yes you do." He snickered, tugging her from the kitchen to the centre of the living room, where a few people were swaying to the music. "Come on." 

"But, Michelle..." Quinn gasped, laughing as Taylor bumped his hip to hers and tried to get her to dance with him. 

"Will still be there, after we've, as the older generation would say, 'busted a move'." He said, as the music switched to an upbeat song, and he began to shake his hips.

"What do you call that?" Quinn laughed, a hand covering her mouth as she glanced around, flushing and pretending not to know him.

"Come on..." Taylor huffed, wiggling to the music and making an exaggerated rotation of his hips. "You know I look just like Shakira." He said, winking at the redhead as she giggled and shook her head. After another moment of watching him and biting her lip, she finally stepped closer and began to move with him, and by the time the next song started, she was beginning to finally give into it. "Woo! Yeah, that's right!" Taylor cheered, bouncing around in a circle briefly, as he waved his hands above his head.

"This is so fun!" Quinn gasped, laughing at Taylors attempt to start a mosh pit to a far too cheerful song. "Oh, I wish I could feel like this every day..." She sighed, as she rolled her hips slowly, flashing Taylor a cheeky grin and laughing when it earned her a double thumbs up from him. "People always have something to say about me at school... My appearance, my illness... It's hard just being myself sometimes."

"Pfft, even more reason why you should, Quinn!" Taylor huffed, glancing around to check what space he had, before slowly bending over backwards to touch the floor briefly and then slowly rising again. "You're never gonna escape people talking about you. It's just a part of life... People are assholes." He said, pressing his back to Quinn's and shuffling a step sideways with her. "What matters," he said, twirling around and grabbing her hand, pulling her back against him with a smirk. "Is how you feel about yourself! Just, let all the other stuff go, beautiful!"

Quinn whooped loudly in response, throwing her arms over her head and swinging her hips, as several other people nearby cried out in reply, and more people joined the makeshift dance floor. She glanced at Taylor, flushed and beaming as she giggled happily. "Oh my god... That was... that was..."

"I know, I know..." Taylor sighed. Throwing his arm over her shoulder as he bounced and shuffled his legs slightly. "I'm amazing, you can say it-" he said, choking off with a laugh when she swatted his shoulder playfully.

"Liberating, I was gonna say, mister ego!" She laughed excitedly, as the song changed. She exchanged a glance with Taylor, biting her lip to contain a shy smile. "Do you remember..? The dance we used to do to this?" She asked, as Taylor swept his hands down his front and spun in a circle quickly.

"Oh, yeah..." He said suavely, winking at her and causing her to laugh and shake her head fondly.

"Oh Taylor..." She giggled, as he began to clear a small amount of space around the two of them. "You're sure you remember?" She asked, raising a brow as she grinned and stepped up beside him.

"Pfft, yes. Little miss doubty pants." He snorted, smirking as he winked at her. "Five, six, seven, eight!" He counted, as the chorus started, and he and Quinn began to move together.  They took two steps, as people turned to look in their direction, before sliding smoothly to the right. They grinned at each other, as the people watching began to clap in time to the music.

"Woo!" Quinn giggled gleefully, as they spun in opposing directions, before facing each other again and following the motion with two quick claps.

"Oh yeah..." Taylor cheered smugly, as he shook his ass, winking at Quinn as she did the same, while the crowd cheered uproariously. "Let's bring this thing home, beautiful!" He said, copying Quinn's grapevine motion, as she all but glowed; seemingly in her element.

Finally they prepared for the grand finale, turning to press their backs together and holding their hands up like guns, the trademark Charlies Angels pose. Taylor laughed as a wild cheer rise from the crowd of onlookers, bowing with a smirk as he held hands with Quinn. "You know, I'm starting to remember why nobody was surprised when you came out to the world..." Quinn hummed, startling an amused laugh from Taylor as she shook her head fondly. "But god, that was even better than when we were kids... We have definitely still got it!" She giggled, as he drew her into a tight hug and swayed her gently.

"Hey, I was just copying the master." He huffed, kissing her brow briefly before releasing her with a wink. "You're the real dancer here."

"I forgot how much fun you are to be around, Taylor..." She giggled, as Taylors jaw dropped in deigned outrage.

"Er, excuse you." He snorted, shaking his head in mock disgust. "I would have you know, everything about me is entirely unforgettable." He sniffed haughtily, as Quinn grabbed both of his hands and gazed directly into his eyes.

"Promise me, Taylor..." She said urgently, her amusement fading to be replaced by sincerity. "Promise me, we wont stop talking again, like we... like we did before."

"Oh, Quinn..." He said, squeezing her hands and drawing them to his lips to kiss softly. "Never." He promised, his throat thick as she pulled him back into another tight hug.

"Quinn!" Michelle squealed, rushing over and grabbing the redheads hand, as she and Taylor parted. "I didn't know you could dance like that! You've got to teach me!" She insisted, glaring at Taylor briefly as she tugged Quinn away. He snorted in amusement as several others gathered around a clearly dazed Quinn, wanting to learn the steps themselves. He smiled to himself as he slowly shook his head, drifting towards the backyard for some fresh air.

Outside, he quickly spotted Sean, surrounded by people from multiple sports teams. Estela was also sat by herself a short distance away, though she was scowling at the skyline, seemingly watching the stars as they slowly awoke.

"So, are you doing anything after the game next week?" One of the girls around Sean asked, flicking her hair back over her shoulder. "The cross country team is gonna make paleo brownies and..."

"Uh, that sounds great, but..." Sean coughed awkwardly, clearly uncomfortable with the attention he was receiving, but uncertain how to handle it.

"... But, Sean's actually super allergic to brownies." Tom covered for him easily, patting his friend on the shoulder in feigned commiseration. "Not chocolate, just brownies."

"Oh my god..." The girl gasped, her hands rising to her chest as she spared Sean a pitying look, while Tom hid a snicker behind his hand. "That's awful!" She cried, as Tom and Sean exchanged a glance.

"Kinda like looking into the twilight zone, huh dude?" A voice huffed from behind him, and Taylor whirled to see Raj sitting in a lounge chair by the pool, tossing potato chips  into the water one by one.

"Oh, hey Raj." He said, running a hand through his hair as he recovered. "Sorry, I didn't see you there." He huffed, as he moved to sit on the lounge across from his friend.

"Just one of my many skills." Raj chuckled dryly, as Taylor rolled his eyes and snorted.

"So, are you having fun?" He asked, raising his brow when Raj hummed for a moment, before flashing  him a brief smile.

"Surprisingly..." He said, shaking his head briefly. "Yeah, kind of, dude. I mean, things could be better but, it beats being at home, I guess..." He said, shrugging dismissively.

"Come on, the night is still young." Taylor huffed, jostling Raj's shoulder gently. "I bet you I know just the way to up your spirits."

"Yeah, what's that little doodlejump?" Raj asked, raising a brow in curiosity despite himself.

"Wanna walk around a bit?" He asked, raising his brow at his friend curiously. Raj grinned and pushed to his feet, offering his hand to Taylor.

"Please, dude." He sighed in obvious relief, as Taylor took his hand and allowed himself to be pulled up beside him. "I can't listen to that girls laugh anymore, man..."

"Right?" Taylor huffed, glancing over to where Sean and Tom were stranded by the group surrounding them. "Sounds like a porpoise, choking on its own spit." He snickered, sharing a grin with Raj as almost on cue, the flirtatious girls laughter cut through the sounds of the party. "Step one, is to get away from all of that." He snorted, as Raj laughed quietly and followed him around the edge of the pool to the fsr side, away from the rest of the party.

"So, I gotta ask..." Taylor finally said, breaking the comfortable and thoughtful silence which had fallen between them. "Why'd you decide to cone tonight?"

"It's dumb." Raj mumbled, glancing at Taylor briefly as he shrugged, before looking away again in obvious embarrassment.

"I bet it's not." Taylor said lightly, smiling over at his friend. "What if I tell you something dumb?" He offered, quickly turning to walk backwards with slow lazy steps.

"Maybe..." Raj hummed, a smile twitching at his lips. "Depends on what you got, dude." He said, tipping his chin for Taylor to continue.

"Okay, well, I..." Taylor began, clearing his throat as he turned to face forward again, his cheeks staining red slightly. "I got points off my Language Arts homework, because I misspelled the word 'orange'..." He admitted shyly.

Raj laughed, the sound a pleasant rumble which brought a fond smile to Taylors lips. "You mean, the most phonetically sound word in the English language?"

"See?" Taylor huffed, glancing around to make sure nobody else had heard his confession. "That was dumb... Though in my defense, I was listening to a really catchy song at the time." He added with a pout, before looking up at Raj expectantly.

"I came because..." Raj sighed, his smile slowly fading as he looked down at the ground. "Well... being with your friends in a place you hate, is still better than being alone, right doodlejump?"

"Raj..." Taylor murmured, but the large boy did not wait for him to comment further, moving over to the chrome plated grill nearby and running a finger across the lid almost reverently. "I, uh... I guess you're right." Taylor said quietly, walking over just a second behind him. A moment of silence enveloped them, as Raj inspected the grill even further. Taylor glanced at Raj's yearnful expression, before looking back at the grill with a raised brow. "Please tell me you're going to grill us something up?" He asked quietly, startling the other boy to glance at him. "I would not turn that down."

"I could..." Raj hummed thoughtfully, his eyes lighting with enthusiasm as he began to consider the option. "I make a pretty good Philly cheesesteak, with hot peppers... Maybe some vegetable skewers..."

"Pretty good?" Taylor repeated, his stomach rumbling at the thought. "Dude, that sounds amazing." He said eagerly, stepping closer as Raj continued to think.

"With a little bit of my special, au jus?" Raj chuckled, winking down at Taylor as he smirked cockily. "Bet you won't find a better sandwich anywhere." He declared his chest puffing proudly.

"I didn't know you were into cooking..." Taylor huffed, though his amusement faded as Raj's expression darkened suddenly.

"You don't actually know much about me anymore." He said lowly, as Taylor winced and lowered his eyes to the floor guiltily. Raj sighed as a distinctly uncomfortable silence hung over them, and he plopped down into one of the chairs at a nearby table. After a moment of hesitation, Taylor followed suit and slowly sat opposite him. "Heh, sorry dude... that was a little harsh."

The awkward silence lingered a moment longer, before Raj sighed again, leaning forward on the table as he fiddled with the cuff of his worn jacket. "My parents were always too busy to make dinner, and my aunt never home til the early hours of the morning, and me and-" he stopped abruptly, swallowing heavily as he cocked his head and lowered his eyes. "Me and my cousin were getting really sick of frozen dinners. I phoned my grandma, and she sent me a handmade recipe book..." He said fondly, picking at a loose thread as a small smile curled his lips. "The first thing I ever made on the stove from it, was a grilled cheese for them. They... they said it tasted like happiness."

"Raj..." Taylor murmured quietly, as his friends lip twitched, and his tentative smile disappeared.

"Anyway, I uh, I didn't mean to snap at you, little doodlejump." Raj said, clearing his throat pointedly and looking away, his throat bobbing as he swallowed heavily. 

"It's okay..." Taylor said, smiling reassuringly, despite the fact Raj was looking the other way. "... I'm still thinking about that grilled cheesesteak." He added cheekily, winking when Raj huffed in amusement.

The large boy cracked a smile, which quickly turned wistful. "I'd love to open my own diner one day..." He sighed, shaking his head as he stared into the distance vacantly. "Sandwiches, burgers, French fries, onion rings, potato salad... Hell, maybe I could even go all out and upgrade to a fancy restaurant." He snorted, effectively ending his dream with a dismissive shake of his head.

"Whoa there, wait just a damn minute..." Taylor said, raising his hands as Raj looked up in surprise. "Bibbidy bobbidy, back the fuck up a second..." He said, his eyes wide as he stared at Raj imploringly. "Tell me more about this potato salad..."

"Oh yeah, I've got a great recipe for that, little doodlejump..." Raj chuckled fondly, smiling at Taylors obvious enthusiasm. "Yep, that's my dream. To have my own diner... and name it after my cousin."

"That'd..." Taylor began, swallowing thickly as he looked away briefly, sucking in a shaky breath to steady the suddenly rapid beat of his heart. "That'd be a really good name..." He said quietly, looking back at Raj as his expression turned wistful.

"Yeah, it would be..." He sighed, huffing quietly as he sat back and looked off into the distance. "But it's never gonna happen."

"What? Why not?" Taylor asked, frowning at Raj's sudden despondency. "It sounds like you've got some pretty genius ideas already..."

"Lots of ideas, no money." Raj huffed, shaking his head ruefully as he looked back at Taylor. "I'll be lucky to go to Westchester Community College. What chance do I have of going to an actual culinary school, dude?" He asked lightly, lowering his eyes to the table as his expression slowly darkened. "And then there's business school, marketing classes... It's just, not possible. For me."

"Well, don't give up yet." Taylor said brightly, already using his sworn enemy; math, to work out how much of his savings he might be able to divert into a tuition fund for his friend. "Ahem..." He coughed suddenly, his cheeks flushing guiltily as Raj looked at him suspiciously. "You've still got time to figure everything out! We haven't even graduated yet..!"

"That doesn't change the facts, dude." Raj snorted, looking out across the party. "My family has, like, no money."

"Money is overrated." Taylor said dismissively, narrowing his eyes before leaning forward suddenly and propping his elbow on the table. "I tell you what... I beat you at arm wrestling right now; you apply for the fanciest culinary college this side of the state line, and don't even say a word about cost! The bet is, you apply. That's all." He said firmly, raising a brow daringly as Raj rolled his eyes at him. "Unless you're just too... scared..." He said tauntingly, causing Raj's expression to tighten, as he leaned forward and offered his own arm.

"You're gonna eat those words, doodlejump..." Raj promised, as they locked hands and prepared to begin.

"Okay, on the count of three." Taylor said, grinning eagerly. "One, two..." He said, his eyes slipping over Raj's shoulder and widening in obvious horror.  "Oh my god, why would she do that?! Urgh, I think I'm gonna be sick... The female body, does absolutely nothing for me..." He said grimacing as feigning a gag.

Raj's eyes widened almost comically in surprise, and despite himself he whirled around to look. Taylor smirked, quickly tipping his hand to the left, pressing the back of Raj's hand against the tabletop. "... Three." He said, releasing Raj's hand to lean back in his chair and smirk. "You know, I've heard great things about The Andy Lucas Culinary College..." He said thoughtfully, as Raj turned back to stare at him in shock.

"Y-you..." He stammered, blinking dazedly as he looked down at his hand and then up at Taylor again.

"Repeat after me..." Taylor said, clearing his throat dramatically. "I am going to culnary school." He said, gesturing for Raj to repeat him, as he batted his eye lashes and hummed impatiently.

Raj paused another full minute, staring at Taylor in disbelief as his cheeks slowly turned a shade darker. When he did finally speak, his words escaped him in a rushed whisper. "I'm goingtocunryscho..."

"I'm sorry, Raj, I didnt quite catch that..." Taylor hummed lightly, feigning a confused frown. "Lets try and work a little enunciation in there, shall we?"

Raj snorted and rolled his eyes, smiling fondly as he shook his head at Taylors antics. "... I am going to culinary school."

Taylor beamed a fantastic grin at his friend, winking coyly before he cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted to the people on the far side of the pool. "Did you assholes hear that?" He demanded, as Raj turned even darker and glanced around with a nervous chuckle, though he couldn't keep the smile from his face. "Raj is going to culinary school after graduation!"

"Hell yeah, man!" Sean called back, beaming a thrilled smile over at Raj encouragingly. "Live your truth!"

Taylor looked back at Raj, who was grinning from ear to ear, and laughing quietly at Taylors behaviour. "See?" He said, waving his brows playfully. "Now you gotta go, or Sean will be upset. Like, he'll cry and everything... He's a total wuss. It'll be way ugly."

"You're a weird little dude, you know that dude?" Raj huffed, though he was clearly happier from their talk together. "... Thanks."

"I try." Taylor said, shrugging dismissively before pushing to his feet and offering his hand to Raj. "Now, somebody mentioned grilled cheese. And, how about we raid Michelle's kitchen while we're at it..?"

"You go ahead," Raj said, shaking his head fondly. "I like how quiet it is over here..." He said, exchanging a nod with Taylor as he lowered his hand, before turning to return to the party.

He paused as he neared Estela, debating for a moment, before cautiously approaching her. "Estela..?" He hedged, wincing when the girl whipped a suspicious glare towards him. "Sorry, I just, uh... I wondered if there was any change..? You know... Your mom-"

"As much as Diego." She said curtly, her dark eyes heavy with suspicion and wariness as she huddled against a tree. "Unresponsive." She said, the word alone enough to cause Taylor to shiver.

"I'm sorry." He said quietly, his heart turning heavy with the familiar sense of guilt which he wasn't entirely sure he would ever shake. 

"I know." Estela replied simply, watching him with her head cocked thoughtfully, as Taylor blinked at her in surprise. "Everyone's sorry... It's not going to change anything." She said, glancing around the crowd dispassionately.

"No... But sometimes, knowing that people care can help it hurt less..." Taylor said slowly, as Estela rolled her eyes and sighed heavily.

"You really are a sentimental idiot." She said dryly, looking away, though Taylor noticed the corners of her lips twitch slightly. "But, that's just fantasy. Nobody really cares about anyone else without having a reason, or without getting something in return." She said, shaking her head as she returned her gaze up to the stars. "We're all liars... even to ourselves. We say we care, that the things we do are to protect others, when really-"

"Estela, I care." Taylor said suddenly, grabbing her hand and holding it tightly. He held up his other in surrender, as she stiffened and turned a furious glare towards him. "I don't know what's going on with you, and I don't know what's happened in your life to make you so... detached. But I care. And I think you're mom will be okay, just like Diego. Soon." He said, squeezing her hand briefly as her dark eyes bored into his deep blue gaze distrustfully.

"... You're a fool." She whispered, shaking her head as she pushed away from the tree she had been leaning against. She wrapped her arms around her torso, a surprisingly vulnerable gesture for the fierce girl, before turning away from him. "You should be more careful. Trust can get you hurt, just as easily as ignorance." She said, and Taylor flinched as his younger self flashed before his eyes, trusting and naive. He shook his head to dispell the image from his mind, and by the time his vision had cleared, Estela was nowhere to be seen.

Taylor frowned, turning quickly to look for the scarred girl, before sighing and running a hand through his hair. Girls are so confusing... He thought, shaking his head slightly as he huffed, and continued on his way around the pool.

"Why do my ears feel like they're burning?" Sean called as he passed, and Taylor smiled as he turned to his friend, spreading his palms innocently as he pushed away the strange encounter with Estela. "That right there, that's a guilty face." Sean laughed, hopping to his feet and enveloping Taylor in a surprise hug. "Its good to see you, I was wondering if you were gonna come and say hi at all." He said, drawing back and raising a brow at Taylors outfit. "You look really good tonight by the way." He added, as Taylor pouted up at him.

"Why does everyone keep saying that like its such a surprise?" He complained, folding his arms over his chest and scowling petulantly at his friend. "I was gonna come say hi earlier, but I thought I should let your adoring fans get to have their way with you first."

Sean grimaced, looking back to the group he'd just escaped and shrugged as he turned back to Taylor. "Call it fifteen minutes of fame." He said, a small smile still gracing his lips. "I'm sure everyone will go back to crapping on me for jumping sports, soon as Ben's starting again."

"That's the spirit, pal." Taylor huffed, rolling his eyes as he broke out in a playful grin. "Although, you should enjoy it... Bask in that glorious feeling of being a part of the in crowd again, even if only for a little while. Must be, uh... nice."

"It's pretty nice not having to worry about having gum thrown at you, or making intimate facial acquaintance with a locker..." Sean shrugged, chuckling quietly as he grinned at Taylor. His expression faltered slightly, as his eyes landed on Tom, standing awkwardly at the edge of the crowd. "I wish I could rub some of this feeling off on Tom... So he could enjoy it with me, you know?"

"That all you wanna rub off on Tom?" Taylor asked coyly, raising his hands in placation and laughing when Sean choked in sudden surprise. "Hey, I'm just clarifying which kind of rubbing you're after here!" He teased, snickering as Sean patted his chest hard and tried to recover. "Come on dude, you know he's happy for you... Maybe that's just good enough for him."

"Dude, you..." Sean began, shaking his head as he coughed a final time,  before blushing lightly and looking back at his friend. "If he could feel as great as I feel right now, the two of us would be unstoppable."

"So..." Taylor said, frowning thoughtfully. "Are we back to the rubbing thing again, here?" He asked, laughing when Sean flashed him an exasperated but amused glare. "Heh, you're a good friend Sean." He finally snickered, clapping him on the shoulder fondly. "I'm glad I've got you in my corner."

"Hey, Sean!" Tok called, drawing their attention back towards him. "What'cha doing over there?" He called, spreading his palms to gesture around him.

"We're talking about rubbing!" Taylor called, laughing at Sean and Tom's suddenly reddening cheeks with glee. He wiped an imaginary tear from his eye, as Sean looked back and forth between Taylor and Tom, until Taylor finally snorted and shoved at his shoulder to push him toward his friend. "Go ahead..." He sighed, feigning a pained expression. "You're adoring public awaits!" He cried dramatically, before dissolving into a for of giggles. "And, I'm getting cold anyway." He huffed with a lopsided grin.

"Thanks, Taylor." Sean said warmly. "Catch up with me later though, yeah?" He added, pointing at Taylor as he stepped back towards his friend. "I feel like we never get to hang our enough!"

Taylor clicked his tongue, miming a pair of finger guns at his friend and pretending to shoot them. "Will do." He crawled, winking as Sean laughed and turned away. He huffed in amusement, glancing around the area briefly, before humming to himself and sauntering back towards the patio doors. As he walked back into the house, the sound of sudden applause made him jump, and he double checked he hadn't done anything particularly wondrous as he walked in. 

Instead, he happened to see a group, huddled around Zahra nearby. "Hmm, what is this devilry..?" He wondered aloud, startling when a voice answered from the doorway just beside him.

"Zahra's puttin' on a pretty good show." Jake drawled, eyeing Taylor in amusement as he flushed lightly. "Though, not as good as a certain someone's dancin' skills earlier..." He added, smirking when Taylors flush deepened to a full scarlet blush. "Ahem..." He coughed,  clearing his throat as he apparently took pity on Taylors burning akin, gesturing back to Zahra. "Makes total sense she'd be into magic tricks!" He snorted, as Taylor tried to regain some miniscule thread of his dignity.

He subtly drew in a deep breath, willing his racing heart to return to a more normal speed, and watched distractedly as Zahra plucked a spider from high on the wall. Her captive audience leaned in for a closer look, as the spider scrambled in her palm for a brief moment; before slowly rising into the air, and launching toward the crowd.

Zahra smirked wickedly, as someone screamed. "What? Scared?" She scoffed, her eyes lit by amusement beneath her red contacts. "It's not even touching you." She drawled, and Taylor huffed in amusement and smiled upon noticing that the spider was hovering in mid air, just inches from a guys face.

"Whoa..." Jake hummed, his eyes wide and clearly impressed by Zahra's display. "Are ya seein' this, Taylor?"

"Oh, I see it alright..." He snorted in reply, folding his arms over his chest as he smirked sidelong at the pilot. "They don't call her Snape for no reason, you know?" He snickered, as Jake's eyes found his.

"Do they?" He asked curiously, his expression easing slightly as Taylor snickered gleefully. 

"No." He laughed, winking at Jake conspiratorially. "That's just the nickname I gave her. She hates it, but it suits her... 'cause they're both magic and grumpy as fuck." He snickered.

"Okay, ya just tryin' to freak me out now." Jake huffed, narrowing his eyes and nudging Taylors arm playfully.

"Maybe..." Taylor hummed in agreement, lifting one shoulder as he adopted an innocent expression and leaned slightly closer to the pilot. "Or maybe, I'm telling the truth." He murmured lowly, biting his lip as he drew away again. "Who knows?" He asked mysteriously, spreading his palms with a grin.

"Very funny." Jake snorted, rolling his eyes before running them over Taylor curiously. "Ya really stickin' at nicknamin' then? I would've thought ya got bored by now."

"I never get bored when it comes to a challenge." Taylor said, smirking as he raised a brow at Jake, whose cheeks dusted a faint pink beneath his stubble. "But yeah, I've got one for most people now... 'cept Becca..." He admitted.

"Why not?" Jake asked curiously, his brow raising and his lips quirking in amusement as Taylor cast him a sly sideways glance.

"Well, see, she has this older brother..." He drawled slowly, fighting to keep his voice steady as he grinned. "And kicking, is the last thing my ass wants from him." He said, snickering and watching with intrigued amusement, when Jake began to cough and splutter in surprise.

The pilot was saved from responding however, when Zahra waved her hand and the spider zoomed back to her, resting right in the middle of her palm once again. "Yeah, yeah, I'm incredible." She sniffed, waving her hands dismissively, as applause broke out from the crowd around her. "Now scatter, I gotta get me some punch." As the crowd dispersed, Taylor offered Jake a brief wink, before walking up to Zahra and pulling her to a more secluded corner.

"Are you nuts?!" He gasped, his cocky façade disappearing, as he stared at her in disbelief.

"Pfft, are you nuts?" She scoffed in reply, eyeing him with a smirk. "You're gonna cause traffic accidents, wearing that getup." She said, folding her arms over her chest.

"Okay, first off; I'm taking that as a compliment, so thankyou very much." Taylor huffed, winking quickly before returning to his precious concerned expression. "Second of all, I was talking about the witchy stuff!" He said in a furious whisper, glancing around worriedly.

"Oh, relax." Zahra drawled, waving a hand negligently, as she rolled her eyes at him. "Everyone thinks it was all fake anyway." She sneered unconcernedly.

Taylor fell silent for a moment, eyeing his friend worriedly. "... After what happened the other day, are you sure you wanna just be throwing your powers around like that?" He finally asked quietly, attempting to be tactful in their public setting.

"You mean when I totally saved our butts from that weird vortex?" Zahra scoffed, heedless of their surroundings and smirking as Taylor glanced around nervously.

"You got lucky." He hissed, his face falling into a frown. "We have no idea what'll happen next time..!" He warned, his deep blue eyed pleading as they met Zahra's crimson gaze.

"Urgh, fine, whatever..." She sneered, scowling as she finally looked away. "Not my finest moment of control. But I did kind of save us. And I've been practising all day." She said, the faintest hint of a pout curling her lips, as she glanced back at Taylor. "I know the other day was weird... But, that doesn't necessarily mean these powers are bad, right?" She asked, a beat of silence passing between them, as Zahra waited for Taylor to say something in reply. 

He made her wait a full minute with a flat expression, until she had just began to squirm guiltily, before finally snorting in amusement. Zahra immediately scowled, and jabbed her fist into his shoulder, but there was a hint of a curl to her lips as she shook her head and looked away. "Loser." She huffed, in what Taylor assumed was as close to affection as he was likely to get.

"You know, you should totally teach me, Snape." He said, grinning and waggling his fingers mystically, as she scoffed at him and rolled her eyes.

"I don't think it works like that, Dumbledork." She sneered, smirking when he feigned an outraged gasp. "Besides, even I haven't totally figured it out yet."

"You just don't want me to out-awesome you..." Taylor accused, pouting as Zahra rolled her eyes again. "Fiiine." He huffed, jabbing a finger into her shoulder with a playful grin. "But this means you have to use your powers to help me out some time." He insisted.

"That, I can definitely... consider." She said, sniggering when he pouted at her. "Depends how and you want it, what you're willing to give me for it and generally how I feel about it, as well as at the time." She said dismissively, tipping her chin towards the door suddenly. 

"Anyway, you should go check on Aleister." She said, changing the subject abruptly. "Last I saw he was outside, pacing by himself. Which would be normal, for me, but it's all wrong for our class prez." She said, shivering as she grimaced. "I'd check on him myself, but... feelings make me feel icky."

"Uh huh..." Taylor hummed knowingly, a grin tugging at his lips, as he eyed his prickly friend bristle under his scrutiny.

"Ahem." She coughed, glowering as she turned away. "Come find me later, or whatever. I've got some more... tricks up my sleeve." She said, waggling her fingers at him over her shoulder, before stalking away.

Taylor huffed, shaking his head as he turned and headed outside, looking around until he spotted Aleister slowly walking around the pool, and casually falling into step beside him. He glanced at Taylor, as if seeing him for the first time. "Good heavens, Taylor..." He drawled, raising a brow at him. "You appear to be dressed to impress tonight."

"Yeah, I know... I clean up good and shiny." Taylor huffed, rolling his eyes at yet another friends surprise over his smart dress. Aleister smiled faintly, before turning back to gaze out over the still, dark pool. "Soooo..." Taylor drawled slowly, bouncing on the balls of his feet with every other step he took. "What's up with you?"

"Hmm? Oh, I'm fine." Aleister hummed, offering Taylor another faint smile. "As you know I threw all those pills away the other day and, it's just taking some adjustment... without them." He said, clearing his throwt as his cheeks coloured slightly. "I'm... a touch out of sorts."

"Good thing we're at a party then, hey?" Taylor said, turning around to walk backwards as he spread his palms to gesture around them. "There's so many things to distract you! For example..." He said, looking around thoughtfully, before his gaze landed upon a suitable distraction for the pale boy. "There's all the cute people!" He said, beaming as he pointed across the pool. "Like... that girl over... there!" He said triumphantly, pointing to a familiar looking dark skinned girl with curly hair and glasses. "Now tell me she isn't cute." He dared Aleister, as the pale boy looked over curiously.

"The throng of girls you've indicated is hardly illuminating Taylor..." He finally huffed, as Taylor scowled at him, certain the pale boy was being deliberately difficult. "Besides which, most of those you're gesticulating toward like the unsubtle buffoon you are, are in fact already dating."

"Fine." He said curtly, pouting as he turned around. "What about..." He murmured thoughtfully, looking around again and pointing to a guy with short hair and a cute smile. "That guy?"

"Taylor, why exactly are you trying to set me up with a notoriously straight person?" Aleister sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose in exasperation. "For that matter, why are you trying to set me up at all, despite never actually asking my inclination?" 

"Why not?" Taylor huffed, glancing at him slyly. "Gotta get that stick outta your ass somehow, right?" He snickered, as Aleister rolled his eyes in disdain. "Besides which, we were only supposed to be pointing out cute people, you're the one with the gutter mind." He teased, sighing in feigned weariness. "I suppose we're just going to have to bring out the big guns..." He said, gesturing to himself with a cocky grin and successfully startling a laugh from Aleister at last.

"Well, I can certainly agree that you can be extraordinarily distracting," he chuckled, shaking his head fondly as a small smile graced his lips.

"You really know everyone at school, don't you?" Taylor asked curiously, glancing around and barely recognizing half of the people he'd pointed out.

"I suppose." Aleister said dismissively, shrugging his shoulder. "It's kind of a requirement... comes with the student body president territory. Know thy constitution, and such other drivel."

"Maybe that's why it was so weird to see you out here all alone." Taylor hummed, his amusement fading slightly as Aleister fell silent for a long pause.

"It may surprise you to learn, Taylor," the pale boy began quietly, his piercing eye flashing to Taylor only briefly, before darting away again. "That alone is a feeling I've grown quite accustomed to by this point in time." He said, slowing to an idle dawdle around the pool. "What with all of the... ahem, unusual phenomena lately, and I can't really talk to anyone about it..."

"Well that's horseshit, and I am gravely offended by your callous disregard of my awesome and supportive friendship." Taylor scoffed, looking away with a scowl before looking back a few moments later with a sheepish grin. "Got carried away..." He snickered, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly. "But, seriously... You know you can always talk to me, Aleister... if you want, or need to."

"Hmm." Aleister hummed, pausing in his pacing at last to peer down at Taylor with a curious frown. The expression cleared after only a second, and a small but gebuone amole graced the pale boys face. "I shall endeavour to take you up on that offer sometime... But for now, I'll settle for some refreshments." He said, gesturing towards the house. "Care to join?"

"I'll catch up in a minute." Taylor said, wrapping his arms around his chest lightly. "I uh, could use a little rest now too." He said, allowing Aleister to drift away as he circled back to the house, watching the party happen around him as if having an outer body experience. The wind picked up, tickling the back of his neck, right before he felt a cold hand settle upon his shoulder. What the- he thought, whirling around quickly, as his hands curled into tight fists. 

"Ahhhh!" Quinn gasped, raising her hands as her eyes widened in surprise. "Don't hit me!" She cried, biting her lip apologetically.

"Oh my god, Quinn!" Taylor choked, taking a step back as he ran both his hands through his hair. "You scared the goddamn crap outta me!" He scolded, shaking his head and swallowing heavily, as he imagined how awfully the encounter could have gone.

"I'm sorry!" Quinn said, looking suitably contrite for all of thirty seconds, before a bright smile lit her face. "Michelle's getting some people together to play a game, and I thought you should come join in!"

"Oh... yeah, sure." He said distractedly, nodding in vague agreement. "Sounds fun." He said, as Quinn rolled her eyes at him.

"Say it with a little less enthusiasm, Taylor..." She giggled, grabbing his hand and dragging him toward the house. "I think you're scaring people off with your over-excitement!" 

Taylor huffed and rolled his own eyes, as he reluctantly followed inside to where a small group was gathering around a circle of beanbag chairs. "Quinn!" Michelle called, beaming at the redhead from a couch and patting the empty space beside her. "Come sit by me!"

"Obviously!" Quinn giggled, plopping down to the indicated space beside the blonde, while Taylor took an empty beanbag between Zahra and Tom. He looked up, to see Rebecca sitting across from him and her brother leaning against the wall behind her, watching with an intrigued half smirk.

"So..." Rebecca drawled, glancing around everyone. "What're we playin'?" She asked, her brow raising as she noticed Taylors cheeks stain with colour and glancing behind her, only to scowl at her brother and shoo him away.

"So long as its not spin the bottle, 'cause offense intended, I am not prepared to kiss any of you, losers." Zahra scoffed, as Taylor cleared his throat and pointedly looked at the ground, trying to ignore the rising heat in his gut which reminded him there were some people present he would very much be willing to kiss.

"Uh, how about 'Never have I ever'?" He suggested, laughing in surprise when Tom began to cheer eagerly.

"Heck yeah!" He cried, waving his arm over his head. "I always win that game! My life is... pretty boring..." He added, slightly more awkwardly.

"What is this? Kindergarten?" Michelle scoffed, looking around then all with a sneer. "Were gonna play; Are You Scared!"

Chapter Text

10.

Party Favours: Part Two.

Are You Scared..?

The name hit Taylor like a blow to the head, and caused his breath to catch in his throat. Rebecca's smile faltered, as Quinn turned pale and even Zahra visibly stiffened, while Raj's eyes narrowed from where he sat on a couch nearby. Taylor noticed Jake's amusement fade, glancing at each of them quickly as he noted the reaction from each of them.

"Maybe..." Rebecca began, her voice quivering slightly in uncharacteristic hesitance. "Maybe we could play somethin' else?" She said, her grey eyes meeting Taylors, as he tried to remind his lungs how they were supposed to function.

"But I don't think I know this one!" Tom said quickly, his eyes wide at the prospect of something new and different. "How do you play?" He asked, as Taylor felt his heartbeat steadily increase, his hand rising to his chest as if trying to prevent it from physically breaking free.

Say something... Taylor thought to himself, his tongue heavy in the back of his throat, choking him and forcing him to remain silent. Say anything; we can't do this... We can't do this! He silently screamed, but to no avail, for his body remained locked in place; rigid and unresponsive to his mental pleas.

"We choose one person to be the monster." Michelle explained with a sigh, as if frustrated by the lack of eager response. "And they go around the circle trying to scare people. If you flinch, you're dead." She said, as Taylor flinched violently.

"But, um, the monster can't touch you." Quinn said, her voice trembling slightly as she watched Taylor worriedly, though he Ws too preoccupied to notice, trying to convince his heart not to explode. "You uh, 'live' if... if you can tell the monster... I'm not scared." She said, the words echoing in Taylors mind; sending him tumbling back into a memory, as his heart seemed to finally stop racing; and beating altogether.

"I'm n-not scared! I'm not scared! I'm not sca-"

"Yo, Taylor." Zahra said, nudging him with her heavy boot and drawing him back to the present, his heart suddenly thumping painfully in his chest. Taylor gasped a sudden deep breath, unaware of when he'd stopped breathing. He exhaled shakily, as he shook his head and tried to clear it.

"What?" He croaked, his voice hoarse from the effort of clawing his way back from the past. He glanced around to see several people looking at him worriedly, his friends and Jake included. "Sorry." He muttered, looking down at his lap as his face burnt in shame, his heart racing unevenly once again.

"I said, are we gonna play or what?" Michelle sighed, rolling her eyes in frustration at Taylors distracting behaviour. "C'mon, Tom's never played before!"

"Yeah!" Tom said shyly, smiling hopefully around the group. "It sounds fun!" He said, as Taylor gripped the edge of his chair, his fingers like claws as he looked around his friends; and they stared back at him.

Taylor blinked, drawing in a deep breath and looking down at his lap, trying to will himself to stand up, to move away, to shout no; but he remained as he was, locked into his seat. This can't be happening... how can we..?  He thought distractedly, blinking back the stinging tears of frustration which tried to fall from his eyes. His fingers curled tighter into the chair, the pain of their tight grip finally allowing him to think coherently. It won't be the same... Nobody will get hurt... He told himself, finally feeling himself relax slightly in light of the thought.

"You know what... y-yeah." He said, clearing his throat to prevent himself from croaking fearfully, his eyes rising to pass over his friends slowly. "It's..." He said, pausing to lick his lips and swallow down his bubbling nerves. "It's just a game." He whispered, despite trying to keep his voice steady. "Let's do it." He said, trying to pretend he didn't notice the faint tremor still in his voice.

"Are ya serious?!" Rebecca burst scathingly, glaring at him in disbelief and anger. "You guys are just fine with this?!" She demanded, looking around the rest of the circle furiously. Zahra met her gaze defiantly, clearly egged on by her reaction. Quinn however, looked away as soon as Rebecca turned her direction. "No. No way." She said firmly, scowling at Taylor as she shook her head. "Do whatever ya want, but leave me the hell outta it." She snarled, standing sharply and stomping away. Jake's cerulean eyes met Taylors briefly, a frown forming upon his brow before the pilot too disappeared, moving away to follow after his sister. 

Raj slowly got up too, and Taylor felt his heart clench painfully in guilt, when he saw his arms were shaking. As he walked away, Taylor heard him mutter quietly. "Not cool, Taylor..." His expression twisted by grief and rage. Taylors guilt amplified significantly, and he looked back down at his lap, trying to convince himself that he was doing the right thing.

"What's their problem?" Michelle scoffed, her eyes wide in the face of such volatile reactions. "Are you scared is, like, the best game ever." She sneered, shaking her head and rolling her eyes at what she assumed to be mere overreactions.

"Yeah it is!" A loud voice sounded directly behind Taylor, making him flinch in surprise. "Dibs on being the monster!" Craig jeered, as he prowled around the edge of the circle slowly.

"You want to be the monster?" Taylor snorted, his deep blue eyes filled with guilt, regret, pain and anger as they slowly rose to glare across at the jock. "Should be an easy role for you." He bit out grimly, his lip curling in distaste.

"You wanna start somethin', Taylor?" Craig demanded, his hands clenching into fists at his side, his gaze lighting on the yellowed bruise upon Taylors jaw.

Zahra's eyes narrowed, her expression suddenly fiery. She got to her feet, gesturing to her now empty chair. "I'm the monster this round." She said, tossing her mohawk back over her shoulder. "Have a seat." She insisted, in a tone of voice which brooked no refusal.

"Urgh, fine Z." Craig growled, his expression hardening as he stomped over to her vacated chair and sat down.

Zahra turned a circle slowly, before suddenly lunging toward Quinn. "Are you scared?!" She snarled, as Quinn shrieked and grabbed Michelle's arm, before the both of then dissolved into giggles. Zahra grinned, and moved on to Tom.

"Are you scared?" She almost whispered, coming to a halt before him, her hip jutting at an angle, as she shifted her weight onto one leg.

"You're not gonna get me so-" Tom began, chuckling lightly as he smiled up at Zahra fondly. He cut off with a sudden jump however, as Zahra clapped her hands together with a resounding crack, less than an inch from his face. "Gah!" He gasped, his eyes widening in surprise.

"Boom." Zahra said, clicking her tongue and firing finger guns at Sean's basketball teammate. "Dead." She drawled, smirking as she turned and bent over backwards, her face hovering inches from Taylors as her eyes rolled back in her head, her teeth bared in a wolfish grin. "Are you scaaaaaaaared?" She leered, as Taylor stared stoically into her ghoulish face.

"I'm not scared." He said quietly, as Zahra's eyes returned to normal, meeting his briefly and seeming to see far deeper into his guilt ridden heart than he'd anticipated she would.

Zahra straightened up, scowling in an attempt to hide a frustrated pout. "Boo." She sneered, flicking a concerned gaze over Taylors still stoic and stiff posture. "Way to break my streak, Taylor."

"Sorry." He replied distractedly, shaking his head slowly. "Maybe next round." He murmured, meeting Zahra's crimson gaze for a few seconds longer, before averting his gaze across the room, uncomfortable with how deep his friend seemed to see into him.

Zahra turned, slowly making her way to stand over Craig. She stared at him for a long second; then two. "Are you scared?" She asked quietly, her tone menacing as she peered down at him.

"Sorry." Craig snorted, rolling his eyes as he raised his arms and folded them behind his head. "But while I do kinda wanna barf whenever I look at you..." He said, averting his gaze as his cheeks reddened. "I'm not sca-" Craig turned stiff, his eyes widening in horror as a huge cockroach suddenly crawled up his face and into his nose. "Aaauuuggghhh!" He cried, jumping to his feet and clawing at his face, while everyone else in the circle save Taylor howled with laughter.

"Oh my god, Craig!" Michelle gasped, her hand on her chest as she tried to catch her breath from laughing so hard. "You are so dead!"

Taylor watched in disconnected apathy, as Craig's expression bled into a snarl, scowling around the laughing faces accusingly. "No way! That doesn't count!" He insisted, glaring at Zahra as she folded her arms over her chest and smirked at him.

"You can always go ahead and leave, if you don't like it." Taylor suggested dryly, and after a moment of consideration Craig finally sat back down, grumbling to himself as Zahra moved on to her next victim.

"Are you scared?" She drawled, as Taylor tuned out, losing himself in his thoughts as he half turned in his seat, wondering where Rebecca and Raj had gone; and hoping they would forgive him for his decision to stay.

They must understand how I feel... Must have felt the same defiance, to not be beaten by it... He thought, biting his lip as Zahra elicited several shrieks and laughs from the far side of the circle, in her element as a terrifying monster. Maybe they were right not to play though... He thought with a faint grimace, inhaling deeply through his nose, before slowly releasing a heavy sigh. Taylor lost track of time in his own mind, trying futilely to think through whether he'd made the right choice to stay and play, his every thought circling back to another argument he'd already had with himself; thus renewing the process in a frustrating and endless cycle. 

"Are you scared?!" A voice roared, and he blinked as he was finally shaken from his distant thoughts, sucking in a deep breath as he realised he'd been out of it for sometime, as Craig was taking a turn as the monster.

"Yeah, you keep yelling louder every time, but its just not getting any scarier, ya dork." Zahra sighed, rolling her eyes as Craig started to circle once more, clearly growing frustrated.

"So, if he doesn't get the rest if us out this round, what happens?" Tom asked curiously, looking over at Taylor as if sensing his sudden escape from within his own mind.

"We vote on a new monster, and everyone laughs at how lame and un-scary Craig is." Michelle said lightly, grinning as Craig scowled and rounded on Taylor.

"I'm just gonna save you the trouble of asking and tell you now, Craig..." Taylor said thickly, shaking his head briefly to try and dispel some of the lingering fogginess from his thoughts. "You've never been less scary." He said, forcing a tight smile to his curl his lips into a facsimile of a smile. "Maybe you shouldn't try so hard..? Get back to basics, ya know? Ooh! Maybe you should threaten to put me in the trash can again..." He offered tiredly, mentally exhausted from the game and all the baggage which came with it.

"Shut your face, Taylor." Craig growled, leaning in close as he braced his hands on the beanbag either side of him. Taylor blinked, leaning back in his seat as a shiver crept up his spine, the jocks bulky frame obscuring almost everything around them.

"Hey!" Quinn called, her tone nervous as Taylor met Craig's frustrated glare with one of his own. "Monsters can't touch anyone!"

"Cool it, ref." Craig called over his shoulder, smirking cruelly as his gaze never left Taylor. "I'm just touching the chair." He said, leaning even closer and dropping his voice so low, even Taylor could barely hear. "You've been real cocky this last week, Taylor, and I'm getting pretty goddamn tired of it..." He leered, as Taylor glanced around the available areas he could see, barely able to make out Sean watching with a frown from the doorway to the pool, while Jake and Rebecca scowled over at them from the kitchen. "Soon, and I'm talking very soon..." Craig continued, drawing Taylors attention back to him. "I'm gonna make you pay in bruises, for every little smartass remark you've ever made." He said, his glare disappearing into a broad grin. "Scared yet?"

Before Taylor could answer, Craig heaved up on the chair, toppling him over backwards. "Aaahhh!" Taylor gasped, as he hit the floor hard and rolled sideways.

"What the hell, man?!" Tom demanded, launching up from his chair with a scowl. "That's out of line!"

"What?" Craig huffed lightly, spreading his palms in a display of innocence. "I didn't lay a finger on him."

"Taylor!" Quinn called, as Taylor shakily got to his feet, waving her away as she stood from the couch. His body moved automatically, carrying him toward the back door. He hurried outside, desperate for fresh air and solitude, but Craig and the others trailed close behind him, along with several other observers. People already in the backyard turned upon their approach, watching intently.

"Aww, where you going, Taylor?" Craig scoffed, clearly enjoying what he thought was a victory on his part, little realising Taylors thoughts were far from the jock and his battered ego. "The game was just starting to get fun!"

"Get the hell away from me." Taylor said quietly, his gut churning as he tried to smother the memories which tried to surge in his head, trying to drown him in guilt and sorrow. He tried to back away further, but with the pool to one side of him and the hedge to the other, he found himself boxed in, and the panic in his chest began to swell like a pulsing storm.

Jake appeared from inside the house, a dangerous look on his face as he strolled casually past the gathering crowd, his hands in his pocket as he turned and firmly planted himself between Taylor and Craig, blocking the jocks path. "Kinda sounds like its time for ya to leave, Big Guy." He drawled, his sharp eyes calculating as he assessed Craig's potential threat.

"Come on! Its not my fault Taylor can't take a joke!" Craig defended himself tauntingly, as Taylor desperately tried to shake himself free of his past. He looked up as Jake started forward, his hands almost freeing themselves from his pockets, when Zahra placed a hand on his shoulder and caused him to pause.

Craig's sneer faltered briefly, as Zahra slowly walked up to him, fearless and furious. "You heard action man. Time to go." She said firmly, and Craig stumbled backward suddenly, shoved off balance by Zahra's powers, Taylor realised.

"Jeez, okay!" The jock scoffed, grimacing at the intense girl as he straightened his football jersey. "No need to-" he stumbled again, nearly falling as he scrambled for the side of the house.

"Hmm." Estela hummed thoughtfully, and Taylor turned to see her leaning against the side of the house, a drink in her hand as she watched the display with vague interest. "Impressive. You'd best do as they say, Craig." She said, finishing her drink and slowly following the jock as he broke into a run and vanished around the corner.

Taylor curled in on himself, flinching as his friends gathered around him and Rebecca settled her hand on his shoulder gently. "Are ya okay, Taylor?" She asked, her brows knitting in concern.

"I'm fine." He lied, swallowing thickly as he unsubtly eased his shoulder free of her touch. "Just... glad he's gone." He muttered, glancing around awkwardly until his eyes found Sean, who was rubbing the back of his neck guiltily. "You had the chance to explain to him the other night and finally sort things out with him..." He said reproachfully, averting his gaze as he felt himself flare with shame for the accusation, but too overwhelmed by other conflicting emotions to focus on it.

"I know..." Sean sighed, turning to gaze after the jock regretfully. "I'm sorry, Taylor. I... I should've tried-"

"I'm sorry." Taylor said quickly, shaking his head as he wrapped his arms around himself. "I didn't mean to accuse, I just..." He trailed off, as an awkward silence fell over the group for a brief pause.

"That was really awesome, Zahra!" Quinn said suddenly, beaming at the still scowling girl in an effort to distract them all from the oppressive atmosphere.

"Gotta admit, I ain't never seen a guy literally fall over from fear before." Jake chuckled, though his cerulean eyes were focused, as he eyed Taylor with indiscreet concern.

"Uh, yeah!" Rebecca coughed, her eyes widening briefly as she made to touch Taylor again, before changing her mind and lowering her hand to curl across her stomach. "That's totally what happened.  What a klutz." She said, glancing around the others nervously.

"Nobody messes with my friends." Zahra said firmly, glancing at Taylor before looking away, faint spots of colour dusting her cheeks as she scowled after Craig.

"Come on, Taylor..." Quinn said gently, offering him her hand. "Let's go back inside." She suggested warmly, and after a moments pause, he nodded and slowly accepted her hand. She led him back inside, where he quickly excised himself to get a glass of water from the kitchen. He drank it slowly, his pulse still pounding loudly in his ears.

I shouldn't have let him get under my skin like that... He thought, drawing in an unsteady deep breath, and exhaling slowly. We were all supposed to be having fun. He sighed, shaking his head as he gazed around the crowded party, looking for friendly faces to try and reconnect with his earlier good mood.

He spotted Jake rooting through the snack table a short distance from him, and raised a brow curiously. "Find anything good?" He asked, smiling as Jake looked up with a grin.

"Plenty." He said, winking at Taylor and smirking when his face reddened faintly. "But if I eat another tortilla chip, I'm gonna turn into an ear of corn."

"How do you know you're not already?" Taylor asked, cocking his head curiously, as he set his empty glass down by the sink. "This could all be a dream..."

"Pfft, a corny one." Jake snorted, chuckling gently with Taylor, before frowning slightly. "Seriously though, if I don't get somethin' that ain't baked, fried or from a packet, I think I might actually die."

"Which would definitely be denying the world a very good loo-" Taylor coughed, his cheeks burning as he quickly averted his gaze looked around, pretending not to notice Jake's raised brow and smirk. He hummed, moving across the kitchen to where he'd spotted a bowl of apples behind the punch bowl. "Eureka! I just saved your life... and, the world some eye candy." He said, laughing when Jake  snorted and rolled his eyes.

"Nice eyes, Boy Scout." He said, smirking as he held out his hand and wiggled his fingers demandingly. "Pass me one of those, would ya?"

"You want 'em?" Taylor asked smirking playfully, as he pushed the bowl behind his back and leaned against the counter, waving his brows suggestively. "Why don't you take them from me?" He snickered, as Jake raised a brow, his lips quirking in amusement.

"That sounds an awful lot like a challenge, if ya ask me, Boy Scout..." He said,  a lopsided grin spreading across his face as he slowly approached.

"And I'm very competitive." Taylor said, desperately trying to keep his face straight and knowing he was failing, as his cheeks ached from his wide smile. He bit his lip as Jake moved closer, his heart skipping a beat as the pilot reached out with his right arm to try and snag an apple. Taylor smirked, and batted the bowl to the left raising his brows innocently when Jake narrowed his eyes at him playfully.

The pilot reached out again with his left hand, and Taylor slid the bowl to the right, hiding it behind his back again, as Jake's arms caged him against the counter, firmly planted either side of him. "Hmm. Looks like you caught something there, Top Gun... But I can assure you, its not an apple." He teased, his eyes dancing with amusement as Jake raised a brow at him.

"Oh? And uh, is this somethin' good for me?" The pilot drawled quietly, his clear eyes intent on Taylor as he flushed and bit his lip briefly.

"Hmm... Not sure yet." He hummed, his gut squirming pleasantly at the pilots close proximity. "Think some intense, possibly even rigorous, research would be necessary to find out..." He said lightly, his heart seeming to crash against the base of his throat as Jake hummed thoughtfully. "For now though, I uh, I guess you earned this..." He finally said, scooting the bowl around towards him and allowing him to grab an apple.

"Wanna split this with me?" Jake asked, raising a brow curiously, though Taylor noticed he didn't actually move away.

"Yeah, I-" Taylor began, watching as Jake wrapped his hands around the apple and after a brief pause, twisted it into two halves. "What the-" he choked, his eyes widening as he looked up at Jake in awe. "How the hell did you do that?!" He demanded, pointing to the two spoke halves almost accusingly.

"Because I'm multi-talented." Jake said, smirking as he bit into one half of his apple, his eyes watching Taylor worh amusement as he floundered between awe and disbelief of what he'd just seen.

"Okay, is this some secret military thing?" He asked, lowering his voice conspiratorially and causing Jake to laugh and shake his head. "Like, covert trade secrets? Black book kinda sh-"

"Nah, nothin' quite so drastic as all that." The pilot huffed, rolling his eyes fondly. "Just a trick I picked up from a friend... Want me to show ya how?"

"Uh, yes please, Thor!" He replied eagerly, posing dramatically. "I could totally use this skill to strike fear into the hearts of my enemies!" He said, feigning an evil genius laugh.

"Calm down there, Boy Scout. It ain't a test of strength at all..." Jake snickered, shaking his head at Taylors obvious excitement, as he discarded his own apple. "But, here..." He said, grabbing another apple and leaning closer, as he placed it carefully between Taylors open palms. "Put it on this part of your palm here..." Jake said quietly, as Taylor bit his lip, glancing up at the sane time as the pilot before quickly looking back down at the apple. "And then, press your thumbs together here..."

"And I just twist?" Taylor asked, his eyes wide as he peeked up at Jake again, the pilot winking as he gestured to him to try. Taylor bit his lip, pressing hard before the apple gave suddenly, twisting in half as Jake's had. "Holy crap! I did it!" He said, beaming up at the pilot as he offered him the other half. Jake took a bite as he grinned, winking when Taylor took a bite of his own half. "So," he asked after he'd swallowed, raising a brow as he ran his eyes over Jake. "Got any other impressive skills I should know about?" 

"Nah," Jake snorted, glancing around the kitchen briefly as other people began to file in. "I'm basically a two trick pony." He admitted, shaking his head.

"Oh? What's your other trick then?" Taylor asked, grinning as Jake coughed and dropped his half of the apple.

"Ahem, uh... Nothin' specific, just, I mean..." He cleared his throat, shrugging his shoulder as he flashed a cocky grin and recovered from his brief surprise. "Nothin' that interestin'... I mean, I can't even whistle."

"Really? Well then, I guess its my turn to play teacher..." Taylor hummed, grinning as he winked at Jake coyly.

"Good luck with that, Boy Scout." Jake snorted, running a hand through his hair. "Many have tried, none have succeeded. In fact, one time I-" he cut off abruptly as someone bumped into him from behind, pushing him against Taylor. He steadied himself against the counter, their bodies pressed tightly together.

Taylors heart raced as he looked up at Jake, the pilots eyes wide as he drew back until they were mere inches apart. "Whoa! Sorry... Are ya alright?" Jake said, as Taylor gripped the counter behind him tightly, his gut swirling as blood rushed in his ears.

"Yeah, I..." He stammered, the world falling away around him, as he gazed up at Jake's too close, clear eyes. "I..." He mumbled, trailing off again as he felt the heat radiating from Jake's body against him, skimming across his skin. With his heart leaping into his throat, Taylor leaned forward, touching his lips to Jake's lightly. He paused, biting his lip nervously and staring up at the pilot as he felt him stiffen, before Jake's arms tightened around him, drawing him even closer. He felt Jake's heartbeat against his own chest, as the pilots hand found its way to his cheek.

"Taylor..." He murmured, before dipping lower to return his lips to Taylors, his stubble tickling faintly as their lips moved in tentative synchronicity. Taylors heart beat a rapid staccato, as Jake's lips caressed his own with a rough, demanding touch. Taylor shifted slightly, one hand curling into his jacket sleeve as hummed quietly and melted against the pilot.

"Woo!" Someone catcalled, knocking Taylor harshly from his enjoyable haze, as Jake's lips disappeared from his own suddenly, his eyes wide as he stared down at Taylor. "Get a room, fellas!"

Remembering where he was, Taylor lowered his gaze to the floor, biting his lip to contain his shy grin as heat burnt in his face. He peeked up from beneath his lashes to see Jake swallow heavily, finally stepping back as his cheek darkened beneath his stubble. "Uh, sorry..." He coughed, as Taylor quickly shook his head and made a sound of protest. "I didn't mean to-"

"No!" He said quickly, his face burning hotter as he looked up to see the beginnings of a cocky grin twitching at Jake's lips, his brow raising slowly.  "I mean, I wanted you to..." He admitted in a quieter tone, toying absently with the cuff of his jacket.

A brief quiet passed between them, as Taylor peeked at Jake with a tentative grin. "Well, I should..." Jake finally coughed, hitching his thumb over his shoulder as he ducked his head to hide a grin.

"I'd better..." Taylor muttered at the same time, before laughing and gesturing for Jake to speak first.

"I, uh..." Jake said, swallowing as he chuckled and shook his head lightly. "I told my friends I'd come back about... an hour ago." He said, shifting his weight slightly at the confession.

"Oh... Yeah, right." Taylor said, blinking to try and clear his scattered thoughts. "Um, parties right? Heh... distracting..." He coughed, his cheeks still warm as he flashed Jake a smile and ran a hand through his hair.

"Right." Jake said distractedly, his cerulean eyes locked onto Taylors deep blue gaze and lingering briefly before he seems to physically shake himself from his thoughts. "I uh, I'll catch ya later?" He asked, clearing his throat and ducking his head slightly as he took a step back.

"Hmm." Taylor hummed, biting his lip to contain his giddy grin. "You bet." He said, his smile breaking free as Jake offered him another of his rough, two fingered salutes.

"Don't forget, if ya want a lift later..." He reminded him, winking as Taylor nodded briefly. With that said, Jake passed through the kitchen and walked out through the sliding door, leaving Taylor to hang onto the side of the counter and try to slow his wildly racing heart.

"Hmm..." He hummed, pinching his lips together briefly as he recalled the pressure of the pilots kiss. "Oh my god..!" He choked suddenly, his eyes widening in realisation. I just kissed Jake... I just kissed Becca's brother... I just-

"Taylor?" Quinn's voice startled him, and he yelped as he jumped away from counter, spinning around with his cheeks stained a deep red. "Are you okay?" She asked, her arms clasped behind her back and a curious smile curling her lips as she approached him.

"Me?" He said in a high pitched cough, clearing his throat and shaking his head as he flushed guiltily. "Yeah, totally. I'm pretty guy- pretty good!" He stammered, biting his lip as he looked down at his awkwardly shuffling feet. "I'm pretty... pretty good." He mumbled, glancing up to spot the punch bowl on a table nearby. He moved closer and grabbed himself a glass, dunking it quickly and downing a first glass without tasting it.

Quinn giggled, eyeing him suspiciously as she stepped closer. "Well, okay mister subtle." She huffed, shaking her head fondly as she looked around. "I was actually looking for Aleister, I've been all over downstairs but no luck... Have you seen him?"

"No. Aleister? No... no Aleister here." Taylor said, running a hand through his hair as he glanced around, as if making sure his friend truly wasn't nearby. He quickly filled another glass of punch, draining it in much the same distracted fashion, as Quinn raised a brow, her smile turning devious as she stepped closer. "Uh.... I'll, um... Oh! Why don't I help you look for him?" He offered quickly, placing his empty glass in the sink and turning away to hide his still burning cheeks. He hurried away from Quinn, her knowing giggles chasing him, as he moved into the living room. 

Oh god... He thought, humming distractedly before pushing away his giddiness and focusing on finding his friend as a warm blanket seemed to settle in his gut, turning to trot up the stairs. He wandered down the hall, and happened across Aleister through a doorway which seemed to lead to Michelle's parents study. "Aleister?" He called curiously, laughing when the pale boy whirled around with a guilty expression, the book in his hands falling to the floor.

"Ah, Taylor, I..." He coughed, clearing his throat and attempting to appear casual, as he reached out a palm to lean against a bookshelf and catching only air. He folded his arms across his chest instead, his pale cheeks staining with pink.

"Smooth, Mr. Rourke..." Taylor snorted, laughing quietly as he looked around the room and slowly walked inside. "What are you doing in here?"

"I..." Aleister coughed, hesitating as his lips twitched guiltily. "I don't know. I should not be in here, but..." He sighed, gesturing to the shelves as though they were an answer on their own. "It's a rather charming office, is it not..? This is quite similar to what I would hope to attain for myself one day..."

"It is pretty cushy..." Taylor agreed, examining a few books by trailing his fingers over their spines. "You know what the best part is?" He asked, slowly walking along the rows of books. Aleister watched him intently, his brow raised curiously as Taylor moved around the desk and ran his hand over the cool leather of the armchair behind it. "Come on, take a seat!" He said, grinning brightly as he rolled the chair back for his friend and waved his brows suggestively.

"N-no... I couldn't." Aleister said stiffly, shaking his head firmly as he flushed and took a guilty step back. "A mans desk chair is his own private sanctum." He said, standing taller though he still eyed the chair longingly.

"Well, Taylor says; just sit in the damn chair!" He snorted, narrowing his eyes at Aleister warningly. "There's nobody around to tell you no. And besides..." He huffed, winking at Aleister coyly. "I know you want to." He drawled, walking over to Aleister and steering him toward the chair, pushing him down into it. "See..? Now, is that really so bad?" He teased, as Aleister slowly ran his hands over the armrests, a small grin tugging at his lips.

"It is, as comfortable as I'd imagined..." He admitted, smiling at Taylor shyly as he reluctantly allowed himself to relax into the soft leather.

"Heh, I knew it." Taylor snickered, folding his arms over his chest and leaning his hip against the desk, as he grinned at Aleister. "This place has you all over it." He said, a content sigh escaping him as the punch he'd consumed, created a pleasant hum in his gut and chest, which slowly began to spread through the rest of his body.

"What?" Aleister choked suddenly, his eyes widening as he looked up at Taylor in surprise. "What do you mean?"

"I mean," Taylor said leadingly, leaning closer to whisper teasingly. "All the suave charm." He snickered, poking Aleister's forehead playfully. "You know, that whole gelled hair, twenty under twenty, private jet at thirty thing." He said lightly, looking up at the books along the back wall thoughtfully.

"I can honestly say, I do not know of this 'thing'." Aleister said quietly, shaking his head in amusement as he returned his attention to the leather chair.

"Basically, the rest of us are flailing around like fish outta water..." Taylor hummed, as he hopped up to sit on the edge of the desk. "And you're on a whole other 'student of the year' level." Aleister chuckled faintly, but his eyes continued to appear clouded by sadness. Taylor shuffled along the desk, moving closer to sit beside Aleister as he frowned down at him in concern.

"You of all people should know that I am not so together as I appear..." Aleister said quietly, his eyes lingering on his long fingers as he toyed with the arms of the chair.

"Hmm. I guess so..." Taylor hummed lowly, nudging Aleister's hand with his knee gently. "But, you're still more together than the rest of us, ya know?"

Aleister sighed, leaning his head upon the back of the chair to gaze up at the ceiling. "Perhaps. But sometimes... I feel as if I'm merely hanging on by a fine thread."

"Well, you would, wouldn't you..?" Taylor snickered, cocking his head when Aleister raised a brow at him curiously. "I just mean, it makes sense. You know, what with the student council, keeping your grades and being on every committee..." He said, shaking his head as he nudged Aleister's hand again, able to feel the pleasant warmth from the other boys skin. "You do so much, Aleister, and you do it all by yourself... It's really incredible." He said earnestly, shaking his head in genuine awe as Aleister rolled his head towards him, his piercing gaze locked intently upon Taylor. "But... I want you to know that you can rely on me, if you want to."

A tense silence followed, the air around them buzzing with promise. Taylor smiled softly as Aleister sat forward slightly and locked eyes with him, leaving barely a breath of space between them.  Taylors eyes widened, his cheeks staining a deep shade of red as Aleister's thumb drifted across his knee slowly. "Taylor... May I-" the pale boy began, before falling silent with a quiet chuckle, lowering his gaze and shaking his head faintly. Taylor bit his lip, his pulse quickening as he felt his body move before his slightly stuffy head could think the action through.

Aleister raised his head in surprise as Taylor leaned forward, but he quickly recovered himself, his hand moving to curl around the back of Taylors neck; and pulling him in for a searing kiss. His lips were gentle but insistent, an unusual pairing which Taylor would hardly have expected from the usually severe boy. Taylors head had just begun to spin, when Aleister suddenly pulled away, leaving him startled, confused and breathless all in one. "I... apologise, Taylor, I hope, I did not overstep... I-I should not have-"

"Um... No, no, it's fine... I just-" Taylor stumbled over his words, trying to make sense of the searing kiss. "Just... surprised." He finally admitted, biting his lip as Aleister swept his thumb over the back of his neck, eliciting a shiver from him.

"Yes, well..." Aleister hummed quietly, his cheeks dusted pink as he began to slowly pull away. "I have grown quite adept at concealing personal-" the rest of the pale boys explanation was cut off, as Taylor kissed him again, this time ensuring it was Aleister who was left struggling to catch his breath.

"I'm sorry..." Taylor hummed playfully, as he sat back on the desk with a pleased grin, looking over Aleister's dazed expression. "Were you saying something?" He asked, snickering and biting his lip.

"I..." Aleister said, clearing his throat as he ran a hand through his hair. "I don't recall..." He huffed, chuckling quietly as Taylors grin widened despite his captive lip. "Well... ahem, suffice to say I... find myself pleased, that I attended tonight, after all."

"Is that your way of saying we should head back to the party?" Taylor asked, cocking his head curiously, as his gut bubbled pleasantly.

"I suppose that would be for the best," Aleister said, averting his piercing gaze as his pale complexion coloured with a rosy glow. "Although I must admit... I'm going to miss this chair." He sighed, gesturing towards the door as Taylor laughed and hopped down from the desk. He watched as Aleister cast the chair a final forlorn look, before following him through the door into the hallway.

They chatted easily as they moved down the hall, not quite ignoring their unexpected exchange, yet neither feeling awkward about it. Taylor was happily listening to Aleister explain the more intricate goings on of Rourke International, the company he would inherit upon reaching twenty one, when happened to peek onto Michelle's room as they passed; only to see a pair of legs sticking out from under the bed. Taylor frowned and bid farewell to his pale friend, before he moved into the blondes bedroom. "Uh, Michelle..?" He called uncertainly, as the bubbles in his gut still fizzing in his blood, a pleasant buzz through his system.

His brows rose in surprise, when Rebecca wriggled free from under the bed and popped up to her feet, dusting off her clothes. "Oh hey, Taylor, what're ya doin' up here?" She asked, tugging at her ponytail in a decidedly guilty fashion.

"Uh, what are you doing up here?" Taylor countered, snickering as he nudged her shoulder playfully, waving his brows quickly. "Did you find anything good under there?" 

"Nah." Rebecca replied, shaking her head as she huffed in exasperation. "A couple of disgustingly fuzzy plates, but not what I was lookin' for." She said, folding her arms over her chest and pouting back toward the bed.

"Okay, first of all; ew, and that's totally killing my buzz." Taylor said, wrinkling his nose in disgust. "Second of all; what are you looking for?" He asked, his brow rising in intrigue, as Rebecca shrugged and walked around the bed, wrenching open an armoire.

"Someone in the kitchen suggested a game of Twister," she explained dismissively, as Taylor pouted at her. "Michelle said it'd be up here somewhere... Help me look?"

"Okay, this is way more boring than either what I was expecting or hoping for..." Taylor groused, moving over to Michelle's desk and beginning to hesitantly shift things around. "This is just... really weird." He complained, grimacing as he reluctantly poked around Michelle's drawer.

"It's fine, we got permission to be up here." Rebecca said, before humming thoughtfully and flashing him a cocky grin. "Or... I did." She said, sniggering as she moved over to the closet. She opened the doors and as she did,  the things on the top shelf began to wobble, and finally fell.

"Wow, that's like, the best ever 'pride cometh before a fall' that I have ever seen." Taylor laughed, as stuffed animals cascaded over Rebecca. After throwing him a brief reproachful glare, the fiery redhead couldn't help but join in his laughter.

"Well, thanks for the show of bravado." She snickered, shaking her head fondly as Taylor spread his palms and leaned against Michelle's desk.

"What can I say, this... very soft and plushy disaster was just, not my fate to prevent." He sighed wearily, before snorting in amusement and dissolving into giggles with Rebecca. "You know if there was a real emergency, like... A spider or a ticking bomb or something, I'd totally step up and protect you."

"I'm not sure I like how spider and bomb are apparently of equal threat to ya..." Rebecca scoffed, rolling her eyes. "But I'm pleased to know this little display weren't the extent of ya bravery..."

Taylor grinned at her and winked, walking over and stooping to collect a few of the stuffed animals. He was about to return them to the shelf, when he noticed just how well worn they were. "Wow... Look at all of these." He hummed, looking around the pile still at their feet.

"Tell me about it." Rebecca huffed, scowling at the stuffed animals as if they'd personally offended her. "She gave me shit for the one stuffed penguin I keep on my bed."

"Hey, nobody picks on Pinguino P. Piddlefluff." Taylor said, pouting as Rebecca laughed and rolled her eyes at him.

"I told ya I was not gonna call him that." She snorted, as they began to move more stuffed animals out of the way. "Though I never actually managed to think of anythin' cooler to call him..." She reluctantly admitted.

"That's because there is no cooler name." Taylor said, winking before he and Rebecca both laughed fondly. "Oh, hey look!" He said, as he shifted the remaining avalanche fallout, to reveal the box for Twister. He picked it up and offered it to Rebecca, his brows rising in surprise when he revealed a thick leather bound book beneath. "Hmm..." He hummed, as he picked it up and turned it over curiously.

"What's that?" Rebecca demanded, her eyes narrowed in suspicion as she stared over at the book in distrust and confusion.

"I think it's..." Taylor said slowly, flipping open the front cover. "Yeah." He said, nodding as he clapped it shut again. "It's Michelle's yearbook from middle school." Rebecca gasped and snatched it from his grasp, flipping it open quickly. "Hey, McGrabby!" Taylor protested, before giggling as he realised his cleverness for altering his friends surname.

Rebecca's eyes grew wide as she stared down at the book, and Taylor rolled his eyes at her obvious excitement, moving around behind her to peek over her shoulder. "Sorry, got excited..." She murmured distractedly.

"No shit." Taylor huffed, snickering when Rebecca made to swat at him, but missed entirely because she couldn't tear her eyes from the book.

"You gotta see this..." She choked, pointing to a picture of Michelle in eight grade, her hair in high pigtails and a smile full of braces.

"Wow... Michelle was actually like, cute and innocent." He huffed quietly, his gaze drawn to her caramel eyes, uncertain if he'd ever seen them so genuinely happy and free of malice. 

"I'm kinda disappointed that she looks the same as we all did in middle school..." Rebecca sighed, shaking her head at the picture forlornly.

"What?" Taylor snorted, nudging her shoulder playfully. "Did you expect a photo of a giant egg about to hatch or something?" He teased, as Rebecca laughed and flipped through some more pages. She shuffled back to sit on the bed, tugging Taylor close to plop Dow beside her, as she flipped to the back of the book. "Wow... check out all those signatures." He said, tracing his fingers down the signatures covering the autograph pages, where nearly every page was full.

"And they ain't even just 'have a good summers' either..." Rebecca murmured, shaking her head slightly in disbelief as she looked over the various scrawled messages, before closing the book suddenly and resting it on her lap. "Taylor... ya like me, right?"

"I like your brother more, but- hey, ow!" Taylor broke off to laugh, as Rebecca jabbed him hard in the arm, scowling at him in exasperation.

"Ya know damn well that ain't what I mean..." Rebecca complained, her lower lip jutting out slightly as Taylor raised a brow curiously. "I mean, like... Ya think I'm nice, or-"

"Becca, you're one of the best friends I have." Taylor said, wrapping his arm around her shoulder and drawing her against his side, resting his cheek to the top of her head. "I love you to bits, little miss firefly... In a very platonic, you have no di-"

"Taylor!" Rebecca scolded as she slapped his leg, though he could feel her amusement. "My god ya the worst, most incorrigible guy I know..." 

And that's without knowing I kissed your brother... and Aleister... Taylor thought, snickering to himself as he chafed her arm gently. "Ahem... Uh, so...  why're you even asking, anyway?" He asked, as he tried to smother the giddy joy rising once more in his heart.

Rebecca sighed, tracing a finger around one of the smiling faces on the the yearbook cover. "People used to like Michelle..." She said slowly, her voice a reluctant mumble which Taylor had to lean closer to hear her. "Like, genuinely and not out of fear, or to suck up to her, or whatever. And then she turned into... well, ya know."

"Boy, do I." Taylor sighed, recalling the way Michelle had lashed out when Sean hadn't been able to give her an explanation for his increasing distance. The blonde couldn't understand the sudden seemingly indifference towards her and the world, the wall he created to hide his home life troubles, too high for her to climb. Taylor shook his head, understanding the blonde kept her pain close to her heart, but he certainly didn't condone it.

"Do ya..." Rebecca began hesitantly, drawing Taylor from his thoughts and to look down at her curiously. "Do ya think... that could happen to me?"

Taylor burst out laughing in response, his hand clapping over his mouth guiltily as the redhead glared up at him accusingly. "I'm sorry, I just... that would never happen." He gasped, trying to reign in his tapering giggles.

"... Ya just sayin' that so I'll forgive ya..." Rebecca muttered petulantly, though Taylor noticed the twitching at the corner of her lips. 

He smiled, and hugged her close to his side again. "Nope." He said warmly, rocking them lightly on the edge of Michelle's bed. "I mean it. You could never end up like Michelle, even if you tried." He snorted, shaking his head fondly as she drew away from his shoulder to look up at him suspiciously. "You might be similar to Michelle in a couple ways, but you differ in one very big, very important way..." He said, his smile growing as he swept a rogue strand of hair from her ponytail behind her ear. "You care about people. Like, other than yourself. Hell, sometimes you care about them more than yourself."

Rebecca blinked, her eyelashes damp and her eyes shining. "Ya really, really mean it?" She asked, chewing her lip uncertainly. 

Taylor smiled and batted his finer to the tip of her nose gently, laughing when she wrinkled it in response. "I really do." He said, squeezing her shoulders briefly.

"That... means a lot." Rebecca finally sighed, tugging at the ends of her ponytail shyly. "Especially, comin' from you."

"Pfft, of course it does." Taylor huffed, reaching up to lightly tug on her ponytail himself. "I'm awesome. Everything I say is automatically like, five times as reassuring as anyone else would be." He snickered, drawing Rebecca into another tight hug as she rolled her eyes, sniffling slightly as she wrapped her arms around him in return.

"I'm..." She began, drawing in a deep breath. "I'm really happy we're hangin' our again, Taylor." She admitted, drawing back to smile at Taylor fondly.

"I know, your brother told me." Taylor teased, laughing when her smile dropped almost instantly into a scowl. "Heh, you should see your face. Priceless. But seriously, I know; and same here." He said, somewhat alleviating Rebecca's scowl, until she caught sight of his wicked grin. "I don't know how any of you got along without me, if we're being honest."

Rebecca laughed despite her best efforts not to, shaking her head in exasperation as she leaned against his shoulder again. "Ya such a cocky ass sometimes..." She muttered affectionately.

"Heh, not yet I'm not, but not for lack of trying I assure you." Taylor snorted, earning himself a firm swat to the shoulder, as Rebecca laughed and drew away to push to her feet.

"Way more information than I need, when ya eyeball my brother like ya favourite piece of candy whenever ya see him." She huffed, shaking her head as she pulled Taylor to his feet after her.

"Not my fault your parents made gorgeous kids." Taylor said, snickering when Rebecca flushed and cocked her head, seeming torn between gratitude and disgust.

"I'm not sure if its worse picturin' ya with Jake, or my parents actually together..." She said, grimacing as Taylor laughed and swing his arm around her shoulder, drawing her close and pressing a kiss to her forehead. 

"Just accept it, Becca... You're a family of good looking people, and one day; someone's gonna realise that you've got a heart of gold underneath it all to boot." Taylor said, smirking as Rebecca scoffed and freed herself from his arms.

"Urgh, ya such a sap..." She groused, though Taylor noticed she still looked remarkably cheered from his words. "C'mon, you hopeless romantic, let's get back to the party." She said, grabbing the box of Twister and waving it sarcastically, rattling the contents. "They're probably lookin' for this."

"Heh, I forgot all about that." Taylor snickered, smirking as Rebecca shook her head at him. "Think I'll sit this one out, to be honest. If someone wants to play Taboo, or Seven Minutes though; come find me."

"Hussy." Rebecca chuckled, bumping her fist to his shoulder playfully. "Suit yaself, though." She said, turning with a wave over her shoulder as she strolled away. Taylor smiled, following after her before pausing suddenly. He turned and glanced around Michelle's room briefly, before closing the door tightly behind him and continuing back downstairs.

He sighed, running a hand through his hair as he moved through the crowded living room to the kitchen, quickly grabbing himself another glass of punch, before heading outside to get some fresh air. He raised a brow, a smile curling his lips as he drank his punch and discarded his glass on a nearby table, making his way over to Sean; who was sitting on the edge of the pools diving board, dangling his bare feet in the water, while his shoes and phone sat on a deck chair nearby.

Taylor sauntered up beside him, suddenly leaning over and grabbing Sean's shoulders, leaning him forward slightly. "Saved your life." He said, as Sean began to laugh quietly, shaking his head as he looked to see Taylor grinning beside him. "Mind if I sit?" He said, gesturing to the spot on the diving board beside his friend.

"I'd mind if you didn't." Sean huffed, grinning as Taylor snickered and stripped off his shoes and left them with the rest of his valuables beside Sean's. "Careful though, this things kinda slippery in places."

"Now he tells me." Taylor sighed, rolling his eyes as he carefully moved to sit beside Sean on the diving board. "So, Sean..." He began, only to fall silent when Sean took a deep breath and suddenly grabbed his hand.

"Taylor, I'm sorry." He said, swallowing thickly and shaking his head, as he struggled with an obvious heavy weight on his shoulders. "You were right..."

"Uh, cool dude..." Taylor said awkwardly, trying to think back to what he'd done or said to warrant the apology. "Um... What exactly, was I right about..?" He finally asked, cocking his head curiously.

Sean huffed and shook his head again, looking back at the glittering water at their feet. "About a lotta things, honestly. But I mean... Craig, and Michelle. I should've handled everything better..."

"Sean..." Taylor said, sighing as he ran his free hand through his hair. "Look, I was... I admit I was pretty creeped the hell out earlier, but that doesn't mean that I actually blame you, even if I was being an ass..." He said awkwardly, biting his lip as Sean sighed tiredly.

"I just..." He said, raising his eyes to look around the party distantly. "I never really thought much past momma... She was all that mattered to me, and I... man, they were two really important people in my life, and I just couldn't tell them. What does that say about me, Taylor?"

Taylor waited for a long pause, gazing down as he dragged his toes through the water below them. "I think it says that you were scared, and ashamed, and trying to carry a huge weight all on your own..." He said slowly, raising his eyes to Sean's. "And I don't mean just because you were being stubborn... I just mean that, you didn't want anyone to know what had happened to you and your mom. That's not you being an ass, and just cutting people out... Its you being a protective son. Perhaps a little over-protective, but even so, your heart was in the right place dude."

"Was it?" Sean asked, shaking his head as a darkness crept into his eyes. "I opened up to you guys... If I was so scared, why did I do that? Why would I-"

"I think we've always kind of had a silent understanding that our friendship was a little different, dude..." Taylor interrupted quietly, glancing up at Sean from beneath his lashes. "I mean, even though we weren't really talking, we all came to help, right? Hell, maybe if I had actually spoken to you all sooner, Diego might not have-" he swallowed heavily, choking back the rest of his words before they could escape.

Silence passed between them for a moment, each lost to their own memories and attempting to reconcile their past choices and actions. "Look," Taylor finally sighed, squeezing Sean's hand before releasing it to run both hands up through his hair. "We can sit here, blaming ourselves for the last all we want, but nothings gonna change, unless we make it.  We can't go back, but we can go forward with a little more knowledge than we had before. Maybe... that will just have to be enough." He said, smiling softly as he looked up to the stars.

"Huh..." Sean hummed, remaining quietly for another brief pause, before finally nudging Taylor playfully. "When did you get so smart?" He asked, chuckling as Taylor feigned a scowl.

"Uh, excuse you." He sneered, shoving Sean's shoulder. "I have always been amazing, smart and generally all things awesome." He scoffed, finally smiling again when Sean laughed. He shook his head and nudged Sean's shoulder in a more playful manner. "Anyway, before you went and ambushed me with all the serious; I was gonna ask just why it is you're sitting over here by yourself..."

"Just needed a little breather from the crowd." Sean said, glancing back to where the earlier crowd were still gathered around Tom. "It can get... kind of overwhelming in there." He added with a pointed cough.

"Wow, mister ego... I said I was gonna ask, not that I was still intereste-" Taylor began, breaking off with a laugh as Sean's groaned and rolled his eyes toward him in exasperation. "Hmm, well I guess your adoring fans have barely left you alone all night..." He said, snickering at Sean's amused snort. "I don't know how you manage."

"Honestly? Its kind of scary..." Sean huffed slowly, shaking his head as he glanced over at Taylor. "Having everyone look at me like that again... Which is stupid, right?" He chuckled, running a hand over his hair and down to scratch at the back of his neck. "All I wanted for the past year, was the chance to show everyone that I could make it in basketball as well as football. Now my dreams finally come true; and don't get me wrong, I'm stoked. It's just..."

Taylor watched Sean war with himself, seemingly uncertain how to best word how he felt. "You're worried that you'll lose it all, now that you've finally won it?" He suggested tentatively.

Sean sagged in obvious relief, turning to Taylor with a shy smile. "Yeah... is that crazy?" He asked curiously, worrying his lip briefly.

"Little bit dude." Taylor said, laughing when Sean heaved a long suffering sigh and rolled his eyes, nudging him playfully to show he was only teasing.

"I just..." Sean began, shaking his head as his shoulders slouched slightly. "I can't stop thinking, man... What if that game was just a fluke?" He said, his hands fiddling with a loose thread distractedly in his lap. "What if next time I get on the court, I totally blow it?"

Taylor tried to keep his face straight, but by the time Sean raised his uncertain gaze to him, he was biting his lip hard to contain his smile and a giggle. "Dude, I'm sorry but 'blow it' just aren't words you should say to me just now... I'm kind of one tracked tonight, dude." He finally snorted, choking back a laugh as Sean stared at him incredulously for a moment, before he began to laugh himself.

"Are you ever anything but?" Sean finally asked, chuckling as Taylor shrugged dismissively, pretending not to have heard his friend.

"Okay, okay; seriously?" He said, clearing his throat and pushing away his amusement, the buzz in his blood still bubbling pleasantly beneath his skin. "I don't think that game was a fluke, dude. I mean, you were a total beast out there!" He said, looking over at Sean as he hunched his shoulders and leaned forward to grip the edge of the diving board, smiling softly. "Was pretty, undeniably awesome.."

Sean let out a long sigh, kicking the surface of the water gently. "Yeah..." He finally said, a quiet huff escaping him as he looked up across the other side of the pool. "You're probably right." He said, laughing when Taylor made a pointed show of clearing his throat. "Sorry, you're totally right, Taylor! Heh... guess I just need to get it outta my head." He sighed, sitting straighter as he beamed a fond smile at Taylor. "Lucky for me, there's a party going on, and I'm hanging with one of the coolest people I know."

"Flattery will get you everywhere, mister Gayle." Taylor laughed, winking quickly as Sean blushed and laughed himself. "I didn't say stop..." He said, pouting at his amused friend.

"Taylor..." Sean sighed, shaking his head fondly as Taylor rolled his eyes and huffed playfully. "Did you wanna find a game or something?"

"I am not playing Twister, I am gonna just go ahead and say that right now." Taylor snorted, kicking at the pool water playfully splashing his friend slightly. "I am so not gonna embarrass myself going up against Becca and Michelle."

"Why not? You usually embarrass yourself way easier than that..." Sean teased, laughing as Taylor feigned an outraged gasp.

"How dare you, mister Gayle! I take back everything I said about flattery getting you anywhere." He snorted, glaring at Sean reproachfully as the sports star began to get to his feet. His eyes widened, as Sean slipped suddenly on the wet surface of the diving board.

"Whoa!" Sean cried, before toppling into the pool. Taylor stared for a moment, and when his friend reemerged a second later by the pool ladder; soaked through and spluttering, he did the only thing he could do. He laughed.

"Oh my god! That serves you right!" He choked, giggling wildly as Sean shook the water from his eyes and panted for breath. "All ye who insult Taylor beware, for righteous karma awaits ye!" He teased, splashing Sean with his foot for good measure.

"Oh, I see..." Sean huffed, a small smile curling his lips. "You think this is funny?" He asked, treading water nearby as Taylor continued to snigger gleefully.

"Well yeah," he chuckled, drawing in a deep breath to try and control himself, but only breaking out in more giggles. "I mean, oh my god... You should have seen your-" Taylor gasped as Sean suddenly launched himself off the ladder, grabbing him around the waist. 

"Aaaah!" He choked, as they both hit the water with an enormous splash. The pleasant buzz in his gut increased, adrenaline suddenly rushing through his veins as he quickly pushed to the surface. Laughing, Sean grabbed his arm and pulled Taylor to the shallow end with him. "You ass! Oh my god, you've ruined my hair! Godammit, you would be so dead right now if I'd still had my jacket on or my phone on me!" Taylor complained, running his hands up over his hair and smoothing it back from his eyes.

"Hey, its your own fault for laughing at me." Sean sniggered, clapping Taylor on the shoulder fondly, before smoothing back a section of hair which Taylor had missed and was sticking out rebelliously. "I was just levelling the playing field."

"That was righteous karma!" Taylor protested, narrowing his eyes when Sean scoffed and shook his head, looking away briefly to check on their things. Taylor pouted at being ignored, his knees bending slightly in preparation before he thought the action through. "Yaaaah!" He growled, launching himself forward and slamming into Sean, knocking him off his feet.

"Oof!" Sean gasped, before they both fell under the water, where he easily managed to break free of Taylors grasp. They surfaced moments later, only to begin wrestling in the shallow end until they were out of breath, their laughter interrupted only by splashes. "Okay, okay! I give up!" Sean finally laughed, raising his hands in placation.

"Woo!" Taylor cried, raising his own hands as victorious fists in the air. "The Awe-inspiring Taylor, has defeated the mighty Seam Gayle!" He cheered, snickering as he lowered his arms and waved his brows. "Do I win a prize?" He asked, yelping as he slipped suddenly, though Sean's steady hands on his shoulders saved him from disappearing beneath the water again.

"Heh, yeah okay. Easy there, Aquaman..." Sean scoffed, shaking his head at Taylor in amusement, as he gripped the sports stars strong arms tightly. "What exactly are we talking here, oh 'awe-inspiring' Taylor?" He asked curiously.

"What, I gotta pick my own damn prize too now?" Taylor balked, shaking his head despondently. "Man, I don't know how people cope being winners all the time, must be exhaust-" he fell silent abruptly as Sean's hands glided down Taylors arms to catch his waist, looking up in surprise to see the sports star grinning at him shyly. Taylors eyes widened, noting briefly the tiny droplets of water which clung to Sean's eyelashes, glittering in the light.

"I got a prize for you..." He murmured, as he gently pulled Taylor closer against him and leaned forward. Taylor was surprised to find that Sean's lips were warm, despite the cold water.

I go eighteen years without even kissing someone, then kiss three people in one night... Taylor thought absently, a faint hum of surprise escaping him as he and Sean separated. "Um... The awe-inspiring Taylor accepts this prize..." He coughed awkwardly, feeling his cheeks burn hot, the contrast noticeable from his cooling skin.

"Good to know." Sean chuckled, stepping back and rubbing his neck with a slightly guilty smile. "So, uh... What do you say we go borrow Michelle's laundry room for a bit, maybe find a couple of cozy blankets to warm up in for awhile..?" He asked, as Taylor raised a suspicious brow.

"Sean Gayle, are you trying to get me out of my clothes?" He asked, laughing when Sean's eyes widened and he noticeably blushed. "Guess not." He snorted, tipping his chin toward the ladder. "Come on, lets get outta here before we freeze." He said, moving with Sean toward the ladder and quickly climbing from the pool, water splashing across the side as they stepped back onto solid land and moved to collect their shoes and valuables, before hurrying inside to find the laundry room.

Michelle gave them directions, laughing at them both and their soaked clothes, before tossing them thick, fluffy towels to dry off with. Taylor snickered as they found the dryer, stripping down to their underwear and drying off quickly with the towels, before wrapping them around their waists. "Wait!" He yelped to Sean, wiggling out of his underwear beneath his towel and laughing at Sean's scandalized blush, as the sports star glanced around nervously. He tossed his underwear into the dryer, raising a brow at Sean, who shook his head vehemently, but laughed at Taylors fearlessness, as he closed the dryer and turned it on. 

"Man, you're really..." Sean huffed, chuckling quietly as Taylor sat himself down on top of the dryer, his dignity maintained only by the towel wrapped tightly around his waist.

"Don't even try, dude... You'll just get a headache." Taylor warned, grinning at Sean's confused expression. "Figuring me out. Trust me, I've barely got a handle on myself, you stand no chance." He snickered, as Sean frowned slightly.

"I was just gonna say... I think you're a pretty amazing guy, Taylor." Sean said, moving to lean against the dryer just beside Taylor, who turned his eyes down to the floor, his humour noticeably withdrawn. "I dunno why but, I get the feeling you're carrying something big... Maybe, its 'cause I did the same thing..." He said thoughtfully, trying and failing to catch Taylors eyes, as he stubbornly locked them onto the floor. "But, despite that you're there for all of us. And, I guess I just wanted too to know, we're here for you too, man."

Taylor bit his lip, his heart lurching as he considered finally admitting to his parents absconding; to the gnawing, suffocating loneliness which he lived with on a daily basis. He dithered in uncertainty for a moment, attempting to pull down the high walls he'd built around his heart and life.

However his heart lurched for an altogether different reason, as Sean continued. "I mean look at us all..." He began, his tone filled with wonder and disbelief as he looked towards the door to the main house, where the party continued. "Ten years, we didn't speak save for a few random interactions when things got real bad, and to even be there for each other like that; even briefly, dude... It says a lot that we can all just pick up like nothing changed between us all."

But it did. Taylor thought, a shiver rippling down his spine, eating away the pleasant buzz he'd felt, and leaving behind only the familiar hollow sense of guilt in his gut. It all changed, because we were one down... And all because I insited we trust the monster. He swallowed thickly, shaking his head as he forced a small smile to his face. "Heh, man some of us changed pretty noticeably dude. I mean, you did not have those pecks at eight, and Zahra? Man, I would not have pictured her with that Mohawk. I always expected her to go with dreads..." He said lightly, finally turning to Sean as his grin fit his face more naturally. "I-"

"Hey, have you guys- oh my god, Taylor!" Quinn gasped, walking in and quickly shutting the door behind her.

"What? What'd I do now..?" He asked, frowning as Quinn blushed and averted her eyes. "Whatever happened, it wasn't me! I've been right here with Se-"

"No, its..." Quinn coughed, clearing her throat as she glanced at him, before looking over at Sean in exasperation, as if he were to blame for whatever Taylor had done. 

"I didn't do anything either," he quickly defended, raising his palms in placation as Quinn rolled her eyes and pointed to the back of the dryer.

"Taylors flashing everyone through that door!" She hissed, flushing brightly as Taylor looked down at himself to see his towel still folded over his lap. He twisted to look back at himself, and laughed as he realised his towel had slipped from the dryers motion.

"Ha! Whaddaya know?" He snickered, looking back at Quinn and winking coyly. "Was it a good show at least? Wait, I already know the answer... Its my ass, after all." He said, looking up at Sean with a conspiratorial grin as the sports star snorted. "I have a great ass." He said, causing Sean to laugh loudly.

"Taylor..." Quinn sighed, rubbing her hand over her brow, as Taylor rolled his eyes and hopped down from the dryer, the machine informing then it's job was complete. "Bad enough Zahra has gone missing, turns out you've been flashing everyone..." The redhead continued to nutter, as Taylor opened the dryer and tossed Sean his things, before grabbing his own.

"Uh, little privacy please miss?" He sneered, laughing when Quinn cocked a brow and folded her arms over her chest, clearly having no intention to turn around. "Well, clearly I've given you too much power, letting you watch last time." He sniffed, turning around himself to quickly begin pulling on his underwear beneath the towel. As soon as his underwear was on, he tossed the towel aside entirely, quickly throwing his clothes back on, before turning with a flourish. "Ignore the hair... How do I look?" He asked, grinning when Quinn laughed despite herself.

"You're such an idiot, Taylor." She giggled, as he walked over and drew her into a hug, swaying them across the floor briefly.

"I am apparently a kiss-o-gram tonight too..." He scoffed, sniggering at her examining glance and suspiciously raised brow. "It's been an interesting night. Now... You're looking for Zahra?" He asked, quickly diverting the subject before Quinn could actually ask for details about his night. "Does Michelle have anywhere that's creepy, dark and likely deserted?" He asked, as Quinn frowned thoughtfully.

"I guess..." She said, cocking her head as she mentally searched the blondes house for somewhere she may have overlooked. "There's the attic..?" She said uncertainly, as Taylor laughed.

"I'm on it." He said, kissing Quinn's temple quickly, before grabbing his jacket and slipping it on, winking at the still dressing Sean as he walked over to the door and threw it open. "Semi naked Sean Gayle in the laundry room!" He called loudly, glancing back to laugh at Sean's scandalized expression, before moving out of the way of the crowd surging towards him. He hummed to himself, as he skipped back upstairs and looked around until he found the ladder which led upwards.

Trapdoor hinges creaked softly as he climbed up into the attic, pausing at the top of the stairs to squint into the dim room. "Yo, Snape?" He called, slowly moving further into the attic as he heard a faint rustling. "Just warning you, if you're thinking of scaring me, righteous karma is on my side tonight! It already got Sean!" He warned, laughing quietly to himself as he slowly walked further into the attic, glancing at the long abandoned things stored in the open space.

Movement caught his eyes, and he headed toward a secluded section, separated by a wall of boxes. He peeked around them, and choked loudly at the sight beyond. "Zahra?!" He cried, startling the girl and causing her to curse. "Aleister?!" He coughed, his eyes wide as he watched the two separate and begin to rapidly readjust their clothing. "Well damn, now I'm just feeling left out!" He laughed, as Aleister flushed knowingly.

"Ahem, I-" the pale boy began, his cheeks stained a deep red as he re-buckled his belt.

"Oh no, please don't even try. I do not wanna know." Taylor snorted, holding out a palm as if to physically hold back Aleister's explanation. "What happens at the party, stays at the party, right?" He snickered, as Aleister's stiff posture eased somewhat in relief.

"Indeed." Aleister coughed, glancing at Zahra as she pointedly glared at the wall adjacent to them, ignoring them both. "Well, I, uh... think I'll go and find the refreshments..." He said awkwardly, marching toward the trapdoor.

"You do that, mister Rourke." Taylor agreed, barely containing a laugh as the pale boy pulled up the trapdoor and hastily disappeared down the ladder. "Sooo..." Taylor drawled, turning back to Zahra slowly, a wide and devilish smirk on his face.

"You breath a word of this to anyone, Taylor, and I swear; I will end you." Zahra threatened darkly, scowling at Taylor with her cheeks burning a fiery red. "You saw nothing, because there was nothing to see. We are never going to mention this ever again."

"What, like I was never gonna call you Snape again?" Taylor teased, as Zahra narrowed her eyes dangerously.

"No, as in if you ever even think about this... thing that never happened again, then I'm gonna curse you with the worlds biggest buck teeth you ever saw." Zahra promised, her crimson eyes eerie in the gloomy lighting.

"Oh please, you would not. You love me too much." Taylor scoffed, though he paused to consider the statement when Zahra merely raised a brow at him. "Ahem... Okay. Awkward." He said, coughing as he looked around the attic. "He's a good kisser though, huh?" He asked, suddenly looking back at his still fuming friend.

"Taylor." She said warningly, her glare intensifying as she grit her teeth and folded her arms over her chest,the movement drawing Taylors gaze.

"Okay, okay, but can I just say one thing?" He pleaded, his eyes wide as he pouted at his furious friend. At Zahra's heavy sigh and reluctant nod, Taylor pointed towards her, his nose wrinkling slightly. "Your tops on backwards." He said quickly, wincing as if expecting her to hit him. He blinked in surprise, when no blow was forthcoming, looking over to see Zahra scowling at the wall again. He coughed and took the hint, stepping back around the boxes and clearing his throat as he strolled a few steps away. He whistled to himself quietly, as he rocked on the balls of his feet and waited for his friend to redress herself.

After several long seconds of standing alone in the darkness, Taylor sighed. "Zahra, are you ready? I'm kinda... bored, to be honest. I might head back down, if you're uh, indisposed..." He said, coughing awkwardly. A second of silence passed, then two. However, Taylor then heard a low, spooky voice call from the shadows. Wow, she wasn't kidding about that whole, pretend this never happened thing... He thought, snorting and shaking his head fondly.

"Nooo Zahra heeere..." The eerie voice called, as Taylor grinned and tried not to laugh. "Only ghoooosts..."

"Oh, okay then, nevermind..." Taylor called cheerily, his amusement colouring his tone. "If you ghosts see Zahra anywhere, just let her know that Taylor got bored of waiting for her hussy ass, and-" he broke off with a laugh, as Zahra stepped out from behind a dusty mannequin, her hands in her pockets as she scowled at Taylor.

"Not. Mentioning. It." She said firmly, her scowl lasting a full three seconds longer before she sighed and rolled her eyes, Taylors laughter too lighthearted for her to stay angry with him. "Get over here, you dork." She muttered, shifting away from the mannequin to move through the attic.

"I'm the dork?" Taylor snorted, trotting to catch up to Zahra as she walked deeper into the darkness and shadows. "You're the one hiding in the dark, making ghost noises and necking with-" he cut himself off carefully, coughing to cover his slip. He glanced around, strolling slowly after his friend. "Wow... This attic is totally you." He huffed, snickering as he glimpsed the throng of spider webs in one of the corners. "Figures you'd leave the party to find the spookiest room in the house... Or just, you know, the most secluded. Sorry, by the way for uh, interrup-"

"Urgh, Taylor! This does not sound like never mentioning it again!" Zahra fumed, turning with a furious scowl. "I swear, one more time, Taylor and I'm scrambling your brains like eggs!" She threatened, as Taylor raised his hands in surrender.

"Okay, okay! Jeez, it was just a little slip of the tongue!" He protested, biting his lip to try and hide his grin and contain his laughter.

"Yeah, I hear you've had a few of those tonight..." Zahra drawled, successfully wiping away Taylors amused smirk, as he stumbled into a box from his shock.

"I wouldn't say, I mean..." He said awkwardly, coughing as he felt his cheeks blaze guiltily. "Um, so... Snape... How bout those, uh... super creepy spider webs and  ultra spooky, um, things..?" He said, quickly deciding the attic itself was immensely more interesting than whatever he'd interrupted.

Zahra glared at him a moment longer, before snorting and rolling her eyes. "Wimp." She scoffed, turning around again and weaving through some more boxes. "You think this is spooky? You should see the master bath." She said, an ominous chuckle escaping her as Taylor grimaced, immediately sensing he did not want to see the master bath. "I kid you not, there's a taxidermy Pomeranian in there." She said, finally stopping to sweep some dust off an old foot locker, and sitting down on it.

Taylor took a seat beside her tentatively, shaking his head at his friends odd sense of humour and taste. "Hey, Zahra... There's uh, something I've been wondering." He said, after a moments confortable silence had passed.

"Taylor-" she warned, turning towards him as her scowl returned, her crimson eyes flashing with irritation.

"No, no, no! Not that... Not that thing that I totally didn't see, 'cause it never happened, I mean." He defended quickly, showing her his palms briefly to fend off her temper. She narrowed her eyes suspiciously, but tipped her chin for him to continue. "It's actually about your powers... I just, I wondered what it felt like." He explained, as Zahra looked away, a thoughtful expression flashing across her face briefly.

"You know when you get really, really angry, and you feel like there's this pressure building up inside you?" She asked pointedly, cocking a heavily pierced brow at him, as he smiled innocently and quickly shook his head. "The first time, it was like that. I felt like I had to release the pressure or I was just gonna blow..." She said, rolling her eyes at Taylors feigned innocence. "Now, it just feels like... electricity or something. Like, buzzing under my skin, that wants to reach out and..." She paused, looking around briefly with a frown, before she pointed to a stack of books. The top book lifted up, then flipped over and dropped back into place.

"Daaamn... You're getting good at that." Taylor said, clicking his tongue as he sighed wistfully. "What I wouldn't give to be able to just-"

"I so do not wanna hear whatever you're about to say." Zahra said knowingly, as Taylor snickered and jostled her lightly. "But to be honest, you're kinda easy to impress, you know?" She added, rolling her eyes at him again as she shoved hon sideways, smirking when he almost fell off the footlocker. "Should've been there when I broke a pencil in half this morning."

"That does sound pretty awesome..." Taylor snorted disbelievingly, chuckling at Zahra's obvious prickling at his lack of awe. "I'd be more impressed if you could make that mannequin dance, though." He said, raising a brow in challenge.

Zahra sniffed disdainfully, throwing him a brief glare before looking over at the mannequin. "Easy." She sneered, leaning forward as her brow creased in concentration. 

Taylor grinned as the mannequin suddenly lurched into the air, its base thumping against the floor as it tipped from side to side, spinning in jerky circles. "I guess one could call that dancing." He laughed, as he watched the mannequin twirl ungracefully.

"Pfft, like you could do better if you had no ass to shake." Zahra snorted, as Taylor winked and patted his ass in agreement.

"Seriously though, Snape... It's amazing how much control you have over them now." He said, shaking his head slowly. "I mean, considering the first thing you did was abuse my face."

"Oh, shut up already, it was barely noticeable." Zahra scoffed, sighing in exasperation. "But... thanks. I'm starting to feel like they're really mine, you know?" She said, her brow creasing slightly as she glanced sideways at him. "That stuff Quinn said, about Mr. Red using the powers to control me..?" She said quietly, her face twisting with confliction briefly. "Don't tell anyone, but, it kinda freaked me out."

"Dude," Taylor said, shaking his head as he reached over and patted Zahra's knee gently. "That was kinda obvious." He said, chuckling when Zahra grimaced at the confession.

"Well... I'm glad you're not freaked out, anyway. Back at the hospital..." She said, pausing as her cheeks darkened, her brow knitting into a petulant scowl. "I... was slightly concerned... that you know, I might... hurt you." She admitted reluctantly, immediately turning away to hide her face.

"I think that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me..." Taylor huffed, snickering at Zahra's obvious discomfort over admitting to having feelings. "But you needn't have been worried, 'cause I sure wasn't. I trust you, Zahra."

"Horrible decision, really. Terrible." She scoffed, shaking her head as she finally looked back at him, a glint of dark amusement in her crimson gaze. "Really, bad judgement."

"Oh, hush... You don't fool me." He sniggered, nudging her shoulder playfully as a genuine, fond smile spread across his face. "I'm really glad we're talking again, Snape."

Zahra rolled her eyes, hesving a weary sigh as the mannequin finally stopped dancing. "Yeah, I guess it's kinda cool to be able to rip on you again, loser..." She admitted, laughing quietly when Taylor snickered and got to his feet, pulling her up beside him.

"Come on Ghoulie Girl," he said, throwing his arm around her shoulder and pressing out snacking kiss to her cheek, before leading her towards the trapdoor. "Lets go do some heavy drinking and show these wimps how its done." 

"Okay, first off; if you ever call me that again, I'm gonna do to you what I just did to that mannequin." Zahra warned, scowling as Taylor released her and opened the trapdoor. "Second, I am gonna drink you under the table." She scoffed, smirking as he gestured for her to lead the way.

"It's on, Snape." He leered, smirking as he followed her down the ladder. "... So, you want me to sit Aleister at that table?" He asked innocently, laughing when Zahra scowled up at him, but ended up laughing despite herself when he waved his eyebrows suggestively and winked. 

The remainder of the party passed in a blur, Taylor drinking and joking with his friends, laughing as he allowed himself to let go of his concerns and just enjoy the pleasure of their company. By the time the party was almost over, his pleasant buzz had returned with interest, and he was stumbling slightly. Rebecca had wisely remained sober, offering the others rides home but worrying about Taylors ability to walk. "I will be perfectly fine, I live the closest; so it makes sense. Besides, the night... or, morning air will sober me up, and I will be... fine." He had assured her, though she had merely frowned in response.

By the time he had collected his things and said his goodbyes, a familiar car had pulled up beside them, and Rebecca quickly steered him to the passenger seat. "Thanks Jake, I just... didn't want this idiot walkin'." 

"No worries," Jake replied, bumping his fist to her shoulder affectionately as she came to his window. "Get ya friends home safe, yeah? I'll see ya tomorrow."

"Sure thing." She said, flocking his forehead fondly, quickly darting away before he could return the gesture.

"Brat..." He murmured, shaking his head before turning to Taylor with obvious amusement. "So, thought ya were gonna walk huh, Boy Scout?" He asked, snickering at Taylors drunken grin.

"Can't say I'm really too upset she tricked me, if this is the end result." He admitted, trying to wink at the pilot but only blinking instead, as Jake snorted and reversed, before setting off to drive him home.

"Good night, then?" Jake asked, glancing at Taylor as he leaned back in his seat and hummed thoughtfully.

"Surprising." He giggled, rolling his head across the back of his seat as he thought back over his evening,and the time he'd spent with his friends. "I went eighteen years without anyone wanting to kiss me, and then three people do it all in one night..." He snickered, unknowingly repeating his thoughts from earlier in the evening.

"Really now?" Jake huffed, grinning over at him in amusement. "Ya gotta favourite outta those three?" He asked, raising a brow as Taylor grinned secretively, when he felt his heart skip a beat.

"Well apparently your first is the one you always treasure most, right?" He snickered, looking over at Jake slyly to see him casting him regular glances. "I guess I can say that's true to me, at least." He said, smiling fondly.

"And uh, which one was ya first, exactly?" Jake asked, as he pulled up outside Taylors house, shutting off the engine and turning toward him with a curious, lopsided grin.

"That'd be telling..." Taylor giggled, trying and failing to wink again, much to both his and Jake's amusement. He looked down at Jake unbuckled his seat belt, but seemed to hesitate before getting out of his car. 

"What about... who was last?" He asked, his clear eyes watching Taylor as he slowly leaned forward from his seat, a playful grin toying on his lips.

"Well, that would depend on if one of them would be about to kiss me a second time..." Taylor hummed, lowering his gaze briefly, as his heart rate increased.

"Hmm..." Jake hummed quietly, startling Taylor slightly when his finger curled beneath his chin, encouraging him to look up as he slowly leaned closer. "And... which one, would be about to do that..?" He asked lowly, as Taylor felt his heart crash against his chest.

"... My f-" he began, only to choke off suddenly, his eyes widening as something caught his attention through the windscreen suddenly. "Oh my-" he choked, gasping as he pushed Jake away and clawed at his door, throwing himself out the car and stumbling toward the long walkway to his house. "No!" He cried, launching himself into the air to knock into a large body, forcing it out of a dark cloud of shadowy tendrils and preventing it from impaling itself on a broken branch.

"Taylor!" Jake called, racing over from the car to find him laying beside an unconscious body. He quickly checked the vitals, noting they were at least alive and breathing, before checking on Taylor. "Are ya alright? What the hell is he doin' here?!" He asked, as Taylor groaned and allowed Jake to help him to his feet.

"Call an ambulance..." He muttered, though Jake's phone was already in his hand. "I... Oh god, Craig... What the hell are you doing here?" He mumbled, panting briefly before his gaze slowly rose towards the woods. He shivered as something tickled at the back of his mind, not anything specific; only a feeling.

"Taylor, look at me..." Jake said, and Taylor turned towards him dazedly. "Go get ya parents, they'll help ya-"

"I can't." Taylor said, blinking as Jake cocked his head and frowned at him in confusion.

"Whaddaya mean ya can't?" Jake scoffed, shaking his head in frustration. "Look, they'll get over ya bein' half cut, but this is import-" 

"No, I mean I can't." Taylor said, shaking his head, only to raise a hand to his brow when he immediately felt overcome by dizziness. "They're not there." He groaned, steadying himself against the tree.

"What?!" Jake choked, his eyes widening briefly before they narrowed at Taylor, his expression morphing into a suspicious scowl. "Then where the hell are they?"

"I don't know!" Taylor yelled, glaring up at Jake in frustration. "I don't know, okay?! I don't know where they are! I don't know what they're doing! I don't know how to get in touch with them!" He vented, his heart racing as he finally confessed to someone, as Jake stared at him in stunned silence. He scoffed, rolling his eyes as he looked away from Jake. "Not that it'd make a difference if I did, anyway."

"... Whaddaya mean?" Jake asked, as Taylor shook his head and swallowed thickly, the words lodged in his throat. "Boy Scout," he said, causing Taylor to turn as he realised the pilot was much closer than before. "Whaddaya mean, it don't make a difference..?"

Taylor looked up at Jake, his cerulean eyes seeming to bore straight into Taylors mind, unlocking the doors behind which be held his darkest secrets. "Because..." He choked, his lower lip quivering briefly as he shook his head, trying to hold back the confession.

"'Cause what, Boy Scout..?" Jake pressed, sensing Taylors need to vent the words choking him. "C'mon... Ya can trust me." He assured quietly, his knuckles grazing Taylors cheek gently.

"Because-" Taylor choked, his deep blue eyes welling with tears, as the sound of distant sirens cut into the early morning air around them. "Even if you got hold of them... they wouldn't come back." He whispered, gasping as he raised a hand and gripped at the pilots jacket, his fingers curling tightly to the material. "Not even if that was me." He choked brokenly, gesturing to Craig's prone form on the ground. Taylor stared up at Jake, words failing him as the pilot gazed back at him, seeming lost for how to process the information and comfort him.

"... Taylor-" he murmured finally, swallowing thickly and knocking his forehead to Taylors, his arm circling his waist and drawing him close. "It's okay... I got ya." He said quietly, as Taylor began to cough and choke, desperately trying to contain his usually well guarded grief. "I got ya, Boy Scout." Jake murmured, drawing him closer to let him hide his face, and pretend his carefully constructed walls weren't falling all around him. The pilot raised his head and watched with a small frown as the distant flash of lights approached them, his arms curling protectively around Taylor, as he finally lost himself to his grief and buried his face into Jake's shoulder. 

Chapter Text

11.

Breakdown.

Taylor stared vacantly through the windscreen, lost in thought as the car pulled up to drop him off in front of the school. Why? The single word thought had been chasing itself around his mind, ever since Craig's almost untimely demise. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn't seem to find himself a suitable answer.

"Hey," a voice startled him from his thoughts, and he drew in a deep breath as he blinked, trying to clear away the troublesome thought which plagued him. "Ya gonna be okay, Boy Scout? Ya know ya could probably skip out today, if ya wanna... I'm sure everyone'd understa-"

"I'm probably better off at school to be honest..." Taylor admitted quietly, glancing over with a tiny, grateful smile. "But thanks, for everything, I mean... You didn't have to stay, or anything but, I really appreciate it..."

"Nah, it's fine. Wasn't gonna leave ya to handle that shitstorm alone... Bastards would've eaten ya alive." Jake huffed, his clear eyes still concerned as Taylor turned to look up at the school apprehensively. "Ya sure ya alright..? I can take ya back home-"

"Jake..." Taylor huffed fondly, appreciative of the pilots continued attempts to help him. "I have to go sometime, might as well get it over with, to be honest. Besides," he said, smiling tiredly as he turned back to the pilot. "You must be bored stiff after being shut up at mine all of yesterday... I really appreciate it, but you-"

"Hey, don't worry 'bout it." Jake said dismissively, shaking his head as he reached over and lightly bumped his fist to Taylors shoulder. "Besides, I can think of worse ways to spend a Sunday." He added lightly, winking as a crooked grin touched his lips briefly when Taylor smiled a little more naturally. "Ahem, I uh..." He coughed, glancing at his hands where they were draped over the steering wheel. "I didn't wanna push ya, while ya were dealin' with the cops all day... but-" Jake trailed off, seeming hesitant to continue.

Taylor sighed, well aware of what the pilot wanted to know. He leaned his head back against the headrest, looking over at the pilot wearily. "You wanna know about my parents." He said knowingly, a half hearted smile gracing his lips as Jake glanced at him guiltily. "I uh, I guess I kinda owe you an explanation, given all the trouble you saved me..." He said, biting his lip hesitantly, as he lowered his gaze to his lap. "They first took off about... five years ago. Just, a brief flit, a holiday. I wasn't to tell anyone, but I think my neighbour guessed... She kept an eye out for me anyway." He said, his throat constricting at the confession, but his chest strangely light for finally voicing his history. "They were only a week, but... after that one of them was almost always gone, and things were always... strained, with whoever stayed behind. They had a few brief weeks away together again, here and there... But nothing major, you know?"

"Damn..." Jake muttered, his brow knitting into a frown as he watched Taylor toy with his bag strap. 

"Heh, that was just trial runs I think." Taylor huffed, shaking his head lightly as he recalled the increasingly aloof and detached manner of his parents over the years. "One morning I woke up and they both had their bags packed... When I got home from school that day, there was a note on the table. My aunt had died and they were going to handle her estate, which she'd left in a mess." Taylor glanced up at Jake with a crooked grin which didn't meet his eyes. "That was two years ago, well, a little over now..." He sighed, closing his eyes as he was flooded by a strange confliction of pain and relief. "It was heavily suggested in the note that I not mention their absence, but that I would be given a decent allowance to take care of myself. And... that's pretty much it, to be honest."

"But, why?" Jake asked, his eyes hard as Taylor glanced up at him, anger swirling within his cerulean gaze. "What the hell has kept 'em so busy for two goddamn years, while their son-" he trailed off as Taylor laughed quietly, shaking his head in wry amusement.

"Jake, my parents haven't exactly been close to me for the past decade. Things were never the same after..." He said, looking down at his lap briefly, before drawing a deep breath and looking out the windscreen. "I guess, they just couldn't handle it. Everything that happened, and they couldn't forgive me. Couldn't stand the sight of me, honestly, so-"

"That's horseshit..." Jake grit out, as Taylor looked at him in surprise. "Taylor, none of what happened to ya as kids was your fault. It weren't anybody's fault, sometimes shitty things happen to good people... That's just, somethin' ya gotta realise in life."

"It was my idea to play there..." Taylor said thickly, swallowing heavily as he met Jake's steady gaze. "You sure you'd be so keen to assure me I wasn't to blame, if it had been Rebecca who-"

"It weren't ya fault." Jake said firmly, cutting Taylor off before he could finish as he reached over to squeeze his hand reassuringly.

Taylor frowned, cocking his head slightly as he examined the hard set of Jake's shoulders. "Hmm... Speaking from experience, huh?" He asked quietly, his heart clenching with guilt as Jake quickly averted his gaze. "Sorry... I shouldn't-"

"Nah, it's just..." Jake paused as he drew in a deep breath, staring out the windscreen into the distance. "I ain't used to people knowin' so much about me." He admitted quietly, clicking his tongue faintly as he looked back at Taylor. "Ya keep surprisin' me, Boy Scout." 

"Heh, well, you're the first person I've actually told about my parents so, I think it's safe to say you know me better than most people too, at this point." Taylor said quietly, chuckling quietly when Jake's brows rose in surprise.

"Ya ain't told ya friends?" He asked, frowning as he jerked his thumb toward the school. "Not even Becca, or-"

"Most of us stopped speaking til recently, remember? And Diego..." Taylor paused, shaking his head as he swallowed heavily. "He has enough to deal with. His parents are really hard on him, and they despise me with a passion; almost as much as my parents!" He huffed, a quiet unamused laugh escaping him. "He comes over when he can, but I didn't wanna make him feel guilty or compelled to come... He's my best friend. I just, didn't wanna be one more weight on his mind..." He finally admitted, glancing up at Jake before looking away again. "I guess I just don't wanna be pitied." He said quickly, blinking away the sting of tears in his eyes.

Jake was silent for a long pause, before Taylor felt his finger curl beneath his chin, forcing him to turn back to the pilot. "I ain't pityin' ya... I don't think ya need it. But I do think, ya a lot stronger than people give ya credit for." He said quietly, his thumb gently sweeping across Taylors jaw, as his heart skipped a beat. "I think ya been dealin' with a lotta shitty hands, and ya did it alone. Not many could do that... and I think ya oughtta know how impressive it is."

Taylor bit his lip and held his breath, his heart thudding almost painfully from the relief he felt flooding through him. As if able to see it himself and drawn to the sight, Jake began to lean forward his fingers sweeping higher on Taylors jaw to draw him closer. The loud buzz of the school bell made them both jump, and Taylor blushed guiltily as he cleared his throat and leaned back into his chair again. "Think that's my cue..." He said shyly, offering Jake a regretful grin as he opened his door. "Thanks for the ride, Top Gun, and for... everything. Again."

"Anytime, Boy Scout." Jake said, sighing as he sat back in his seat, tipping Taylor a familiar two finger salute as he got out of the car. "I'll try and see ya later, 'kay?"

"Oh... you don't have to-" Taylor began, his blush returning as he swung his bag onto his shoulder and ducked down to look back at the pilot.

"Shut up, Taylor." Jake sniggered, shaking his head fondly. Taylor huffed, throwing a mocking salute back at the pilot and startling a laugh from him before closing the door and watching as he drove away, offering a small wave as the car disappeared around the corner.

"Taylor!" He turned at the sound of his name, to spot Aleister and the rest of his friends hurrying towards him.

"Hey, everyone..." He said, sighing as he ran a hand through his hair, partially wishing he'd accepted the pilots offer to return home.

"Are you okay?" Quinn asked, her arms rising around his shoulders and pulling him into a tight hug.

"What happened after the party?!" Sean asked, his eyes wide as he clapped Taylor comfortingly on the shoulder. "Are you-"

"Jake said Craig was at ya house... That he was unconscious?!" Rebecca cut in over Sean, her grey eyes clouded by concern as Taylor peeked up at her over Quinn's shoulder. "We wanted to come and see ya but-"

"It wasn't a good idea, we were basically dealing with the cops all day anyway..." Taylor said, finally drawing away from Quinn. "I was lucky he was there to be honest, I would've been totally screwed had I gone home alone, though... If I had I might not have been in time to-" he shuddered, his mind flashing back to the awful scene as he'd seen the shadows rise around Craig's prime body. "Has anyone heard anything about Craig?" He asked, glancing around his friends urgently.

"The hospital won't let anyone see him yet, but from what I know he's in a similar state to everyone else..." Sean said, his shoulders slumping as he looked over at Taylor.

"Unresponsive..." He murmured knowingly, nodding his head lightly. He drew in a deep breath, exhaling slowly as he tried to calm the rising wave of panic in his heart.

"Holy crap..." Raj said, rubbing the back of his neck as he glanced at Taylor awkwardly. "What... what happened to him, dude?"

"... When we pulled up, at first I didn't see anything. But then... It was like the shadows had hands, and they were lifting Craig up..." He said, his voice trembling as the awful scene replayed in his mind. "And... and it was gonna impale him, on this broken branch... And I-" he broke off, his throat thick with the cloying fear and grief which he'd felt since the evening.

"Jake... did he..?" Rebecca asked hesitantly, her gaze worried as she met Taylors watering deep blue eyes. He shook his head, scrubbing at his eyes quickly as he sucked in another deep breath to clear the words blocking his throat.

"No... No, he didn't see." He said, a brief sense of relief filling his heart, a touch of warmth from the pilots remembered support and earlier touch, before it was consumed by his grief once more. "He was in the car still, and i made it to Craig in time. He just thought I rushed to check his vitals and tripped." He huffed fondly, shaking his head as he wrapped his arms around his torso.  

Silence hung over them for a moment, thick and uneasy. "... Do ya parents know?" Rebecca finally asked, as Taylor coughed and ducked his head.

"Uh, yeah..." He lied, scratching at the back of his neck awkwardly. "Jake spoke to mom briefly." He said quickly, recalling the 'friend' Jake had called, who asked no questions when he told them to follow his lead. 

"Are you a suspect?" Zahra demanded, frowning in uncharacteristic concern. "My dad wouldn't tell me anything!"

"I'm not a suspect... But, that's mostly 'cause Jake helped with the talking to be honest; just said we'd just got back from the party and he was the designated driver bringing me home; that I was too out of it to really know anything... I think they wanted to try and pin something on me, but he was adamant and made them check with Michelle; she confirmed I was at the party all night. I don't know the kinda mess I'd be in right now if it weren't for him." He admitted shakily, flashing a weak smile to the group as Rebecca and Aleister reached for each of his hands and squeezed them briefly. 

"The small amount of info I could glean at the hospital was just that, Craig looked like he'd been beating something pretty hard with his fists, but hadn't taken much damage in return..." Sean said awkwardly, scratching the back of his hand. "I'm guessing he probably went down to the gym and wailed on the punching bag. The one at the edge of town. Down by-"

"The woods." Raj finished, shaking his head as he looked down at the ground, his hand balling into a fist.

"... The cops finally decided last night that Craig must've been trying to break in, slipped and concussed himself." Taylor sighed, running a hand through his hair and down the back of his neck. "That he maybe planned to teach me a lesson, after the whole party fiasco..." He explained, shrugging his shoulder when his friends all glanced at each other. "Jake told them what had happened before Craig took off, and I guess Michelle confirmed it..."

"What do you think, Taylor?" Aleister asked, his piercing gaze intent as he looked down at Taylor worriedly.

"I..." Taylor began, pausing to shake his head, as the words lodged in his throat. "I think Redfield was gonna kill him." He finally choked out, looking around his friends as they exchanged nervous glances.

"And, uh..." Aleister coughed, glancing away guiltily. "How, exactly, do you feel about that..?" He asked slowly, as Taylor frowned at his friend.

"I think this is messed up, what the hell else would I think?" He replied, his eyes widening at the guilty flush in Aleister's cheeks. "What? You think I was gonna be pleased?! Jesus, Craig's been an ass sure, and last night especially, but he didn't deserve to die for it! And definitely not like that. I'm not so bloody petty I'd wish that on anyone..." He snarked irritably.

"I... apologise, Taylor. That was... uncalled for." Aleister said awkwardly, clearing his throat as he folded his arms over his chest.

"You guys see what this means, right?" Quinn said quietly, biting her lip as she looked around the group in obvious distress.

"It means things are devolving rapidly." Aleister sighed, raising a hand to his jaw and scratching delicately. "If Redfield is willing to kill for us... There's no telling what else he'll do."

"So we put a stop to it doodlejumps, once and for all." Raj demanded, smacking his fist into his opposing palm loudly. "We march into those woods, find Mr. Red's house, and-"

"That's what started this mess!" Quinn cried, her eyes wide in fear as she looked over at Raj imploringly. "The closer we get to him, the stronger he becomes! And clearly, he's too strong already!"

"Seriously." Rebecca agreed, resting her hand on Quinn's shoulder in an attempt to calm her, as she glared at Raj in irritation. "What the hell are we even supposed to do, against a freakin' shadow monster, that tries to impale people on trees?!"

"There's gotta be something we can do..." Sean said firmly, shaking his head as he glared at the ground. "I'm not just gonna sit around while people get hurt! Next time, one of us might not be around to stop Redfield..."

"B-but, if he's doing all this for us..." Quinn babbled, her tone hopeful ,even though her crystalline eyes were heavy with despair. "Maybe, he'd go away if we just ignored him..."

"Sure." Zahra said, shrugging lightly. "And maybe if we all wish real hard,  the clouds will turn into cotton candy." She said, chuckling in amusement at her own joke, as Quinn sighed and rolled her eyes in frustration. "Look, we can't just ignore Mr. Red. We tried that already, okay? So, we go back to plan A... We need to understand him. It's the only way to get some control over the situation."

"You want to control Mr. Red?!" Raj cried, his eyes first widening in shock, before narrowing in fury. "After what he did?!"

"I said control the situation, not Mr. Red..." Zahra said flippantly, shrugging her shoulder dismissively. "But whatever, dork. You gotta better idea?"

"Just, hold on a second guys..." Taylor called, sighing as he rubbed his fingers against his temples. "To be honest, you're all right. Mr. Red is way out of our league..." He admitted, gesturing towards Rebecca, as she frowned at him suspiciously. "We do have to do something to stop him, so that nobody else gets hurt..." He said, gesturing to Raj, who pouted but conceded Taylors point. "And... we do need to know more. So, before we decide to do anything, one way or the other; we should look into ways to control or, even better, lock Mr. Red away. We won't know euther way, unless we look for it."

"Yeah, and while we're looking, more people might get hurt..." Raj pointed out, scowling as he raised his eyes to Taylors. "Might actually die."

"We are the ones closest to this fiasco," Aleister sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. "So, we should endeavour to do everything in our power, to find a way to stop Redfield." He said, before looking around the group tiredly, spreading his palms before him. "But... the ugly truth remains; that there may well be nothing we can do. Redfield may simply be beyond our reach, already he's far more powerful than when we were mere children..."

"Cool dude, thanks for the pep talk." Raj scoffed, shaking his head as he looked away, scowling towards the woods in the distance.

"Oh, I'm sorry Raj, would you prefer I sugar-coat this whole mess for your sensitive backside?" Aleister sneered, his gaze hardening as he glared over at Raj. "I am merely attempting to be honest about the situation we find ourselves in!"

"... Is it just me, or did Aleister just use a lot of big words to call Raj an asshole?" Taylor whispered to Rebecca, who fought hard to keep a smile from her face, though she nodded faintly in agreement. "Cool, just checking." He murmured, before turning back to the rest if his friends.

"Funny, it sounds a lot like you're trying to talk yourself out of doing anything to me, dude." Raj scoffed, turning away as Aleister noticeably prickled at the barb.

"C'mon Raj, nobody's giving up!" Taylor sighed, scratching his head in irritation. "We're just trying to figure out-"

"Save it, dude." Raj said, shaking his head as he took a step back from the group. "You know, for a second there... I thought you were all with me doodlejumps. I thought maybe, we were finally going to make things right." He said, swallowing thickly as he slowly looked around them all. "Guess I was wrong." He said, before slouching off towards the school building.

"... Somebody wanna go after him?" Sean asked quietly, watching Raj sadly, as Taylor sighed heavily and did the same.

"Nah." Zahra said dismissively, covering her mouth as she yawned. "Let him have his hissy fit." The group looked around each other uncomfortably, before joining the thin crowd of students hurrying through the front doors.

The moment Taylor stepped through the doors however, a furious roar pierced the air. "You!" Taylor felt his stomach drop, as he turned to see Estela bearing down on him like an angry dragon defending its nest.

"Oh crap..." He sighed, wincing in preparation of the furious girls attack. He threw up his hands in defence, taking a step back in the hopes of slowing Estela's approach.

"You... What the hell did you do?!" Estela demanded, glaring at him hatefully as she stormed closer. "He almost died! Now tell me, what the hell happened?!"

"Estela, wait!" Taylor pleaded, backing up as much as he was able. "I-" he gasped as Estela grabbed him by the front of his shirt, slamming him into the nearby lockers.

"I know you saw something, now tell me-" Estela demanded, her dark eyes seeming almost to glow in their ferocity.

"Hey, leave him alone! It's not his fault your best friend is a jer-" Zahra began, reaching for Estela's arm to pull her hand free from Taylors top. However, Estela quickly shifted out of her hold, twisting free so she could slam her fist into Zahra's stomach.

"I wasn't talking to you," Estela snarled, her scarred eye seeming to glitter with gleeful malice. "Though after the stunt you pulled, maybe I should be focusing on you. He wouldn't have gone off alone if it weren't for you..."

"Hey!" Rebecca cried, moving to Zahra's side as she huffed and doubled over, glaring at Estela furiously.

"What the hell?!" Sean demanded, scowling at Estela as he moved to gently step between her and Zahra. "I'm worried about him too, that doesn't give you the right to-"

Estela scoffed and turned back to Taylor, her eyes narrowed knowingly as she glared at him fiercely. "You're all as bad as each other. Burying your heads in the sand, pretending you don't know what's going on!" She snarled, looming over Taylor with fury and hatred in her dark eyes.

Taylor blinked, his heart racing as he stared back at Estela, his pulse rising as he realised there was more in her gaze than anger. Pain... and fear. He thought, his eyes widening in surprise.

As if realizing Taylor had seen deeper than she intended him to, Estela growled, her furious expression darkening as she gripped his top tighter. "You." She said quietly, but no less threatening for the lack of volume. "You almost got him killed... Just like-"

"That is quite enough!" Aleister roared, as he and Sean moved to her sided, forcing her to release Taylor and take a large step backwards, though her glare never diminished. Taylor stared at her, his heart motionless in his chest, frozen by the scarred girls accusation. He blinked, slowly turning his detached gaze toward Zahra, where Quinn and Rebecca were stood beside her, bracing her weight between them.

"You good, Snape..?" He asked slowly, the words hard to find as he struggled to fight off the sense of numbness which tried to smother him.

"Should we get help?" Quinn asked worriedly, as Zahra took a deep breath and straightened herself, glancing at Taylor briefly, before scowling back at Estela.

"Just keep that... psycho... away from me." She bit out, as she pulled her jacket straight and tossed her Mohawk over her shoulder. "It's not my fault Craiggers is an asshole, he brought it on himself. We didn't have shit to do with it."

"Right, because you didn't force him outta that party." Estela griped back, her teeth flashing briefly as she snarled at Zahra. "If I could've caught up to him, maybe I could've prevented it... But you made sure I couldn't. You drove him out."

"For pity's sake, Miss Montoya, do calm down." Aleister drawled, rolling his eyes as Taylor leaned back against the lockers, looking up to the ceiling as he tried to fight off the rising memories in his mind, the gnawing guilt in his gut and the numbness at the edge of his heart. "Zahra was nowhere near the area Craig was discovered, she was already on her way home, as were many others. It was... an unfortunate, and unforeseeable accident-"

"You say that like you actually believe it." Estela scoffed, rolling her eyes as she settled a fist upon her hip. "You're all pathetic. But you, Taylor... I expected more from you." She said, shaking her head at him, as he raised his eyes to hers; his dejection meeting her fury, and floundering beneath it.

"Hey, that's our friend your talking to." Sean said warningly, his gaze hardening as he shifted slightly, attempting to hide Taylor from her view. "So how about you leave now... before we make you?"

Estela's fists tightened, shaking as she glared around them all, clearly debating her chances. Taylor blinked, his heart aching with guilt as he watched the dark haired girl silently fume. "Estela." He said quietly, his voice thick with the weight of his confession, as she turned and raised a brow at him. "I'm sorry."

Estela frowned, her gaze softening slightly as she took a deep breath, her hands finally ceasing their furious trembling. "I know you are." She said at last, her annoyed gaze flicking over him. "The problem; is that you won't do anything..." She added, shaking her head as she blinked and glared around the rest of the group. "Just because you hate him-"

"Doesn't mean he deserved what happened! If I had been even ten minutes longer, he'd have been-!" Taylor exclaimed, startling his friends with his vehemence, before choking off in distress. "Believe me, if there was anything I could've done-"

"There's plenty you could do, Taylor, don't give me that bullshit. It might work on your little playmates, but I know otherwise." Estela sneered, her gaze hardening once again as she focused intently upon Taylor. "And so do you."

"Estela-" Taylor began, shaking his head desperately, as her expression twisted with fury. She pulled back her fist and exploded towards him, but Taylor watched the process as if it were in slow motion. He hesitated for a second, debating whether perhaps he deserved the blow, but at the last second he dodged, and instead grabbed Estela by the arm. "I'll admit to bearing the guilt, the blame, whatever you wanna call it." He whispered to her, his expression darkening as he leaned close to her ear. "But... I am done standing around and taking other peoples fists to my face-"

Estela snarled, twisting her hips and ripping Taylor off his feet. She hurled him over her shoulder, and slammed him into the linoleum. "Oof!" He gasped, rolling onto his side and curling his knees to his chest with a groan.

"Estela, Stop!" Rebecca yelled, scowling at Estela as she panted lightly, before glancing down at Taylor nervously. "Leave him alone!" She cried, as a crowd began to form around them.

Estela growled and moved forward again, only for Sean and Aleister to grab hold of her arms, moving her back several steps and allowing Quinn to rush to Taylors side to check on him. "I understand you're upset, Miss Montoya, but truly; if you don't stop attacking people..." Aleister huffed, as he tried to hold back the viciously squirming girl in his grasp.

"Arrgh! You're all as bad as each other!" Estela growled, throwing her weight into each of the boys restraining her in an attempt to free herself. "Between your determined blindness, and you're stupid carelessness!" She snarled, pointed glancing at Zahra, who's eyes widened and darted around the other students briefly. "I honestly can't decide which one of you's worst half the time... But you know, don't you Taylor?"

"Bitch, I do not know what you're talking about." Zahra said, her scowl returning as she noticed Taylors expression crumpling with guilt.

"Oh please, you're about as subtle as he is." Estela snorted, tipping her chin toward Taylor as she continued to struggle against Sean and Aleister. "You might manage to fool the rest of these idiots that its cheap magic tricks, but I know the truth. The whole truth."

Taylor choked as he felt the tickle of something in the back of his mind, the faint flicker of a memory which remained just out of his grasp. He swallowed heavily, shaking his head as he tried to grasp the memory, only for it to flutter out of his grasp like paper in the wind; leaving him frustrated and nervous, as if he'd lost something important.

"If that were true," Zahra said, scowling at Estela murderously. "Punching me in the gut, seems like a pretty dumb idea." She warned in a low voice, though Estela merely snorted in response.

"I'm not afraid of you." The scarred girl said quietly, the hints of a smirk twitching her lips. "Go ahead and do something to me right now. I dare you..." She said, folding her arms over her chest.

Taylor frowned, still irritated by the lost knowledge he was certain would help him understand Estela's rage. He glanced at the clock on the wall, realizing their first classes would soon be starting. He opened his mouth to tell the others, when Estela suddenly twisted free of Aleister and Sean. She dodged around Rebecca, and shoved her shoulder into Quinn's to knock her aside, before grabbing Taylors shoulders and slamming him against the lockers. "S... stop..." Zahra warned, as Taylor gasped in surprise, but glared back at Estela defiantly.

"Let go of him!" Rebecca cried, trying to pry Estela's hands from Taylors shoulders, as the lights flickered once. 

Taylor felt his panic surge, thrown back to the memory of the shadowy tendrils he'd witnessed after the party. No... Not here! He thought desperately, his eyes widening as he gazed at Estela. He planted his feet against the base of the lockers, and shoved as hard as he could, forcing Estela back several steps and loosening her grip on him. "You need to stop!" He insisted firmly, glancing back to the lockers they'd just moved away from, as they began to rattle ominously.

"Estela... You don't understand!" Quinn pleaded, exchanging a nervous glance with Rebecca, as she moved to the other girls side, the pair reaching for each others hands to both give and receive comfort.

"Listen to them, Estela... Don't make me-" Zahra began, approaching slowly as her fingers twitched, like she yearned to reach for the knife Taylor knew she kept hidden in her boot.

"Oh please, if you were gonna do anything you would've by now." Estela scoffed, barely glancing at Zahra before turning back to Taylor. "Why the hell won't you do anything?!" She demanded, her frustration clear in both her expression and tone.

Taylor felt goosebumps break out across his arms, as locker dials began to spin. "Estela, stop!" He warned, shaking his head as he glanced worriedly at his furious friend. "You don't understand what you askin-"

"No, you don't understand!" Estela fumed, glaring at him in heated exasperation. "You don't understand that ignori-"

"Okay, you know what? I am so done with this little threat-fest." Zahra sneered, stepping forward as a wave of force erupted from her, knocking Taylor and his friends away from Estela, as she began to growl and fight back against the force attempting to throw her down the hall. "We all said it. Now get the hell away from him!"

"Zahra, wait!" Taylor called, as Estela drifted down the hall, snarling as she fought against the force propelling her back into the bulletin board. Students began to scream as Zahra advanced on her, scowling furiously.

"You really wanna waste your time on me right now, freak?" Estela growled, glaring at Zahra as she approached. "You might wanna try learning some self control, before you find yourself-"

"Ha. Funny." Zahra snorted, pausing a few short steps away from Estela, the pair glaring st each other hatefully. "Coming from the resident psycho who can't keep her own temper."

"Zahra..." Taylor gasped, moving slowly down the hall as the lights flickered once again, his friends fury seeming almost to coalesce around her.

"I warned you." She snarled, as Estela's head rolled back against the wall, her dark eyes filled with furious hatred as her chest began to heave.

"You... gonna add another... body to your count..?" Estela choked, panting with effort to try and catch her breath, her feet flailing once as she began to slide slowly up the wall.

"Oh my god..." Rebecca gasped, her hands rising to cover her mouth as she stared at the display in horror.

"Zahra, think about what you're-" Aleister began, moving to try and place himself between Zahra and Estela, only to be knocked aside by another brush of force. 

"Zahra..!" Quinn gasped from nearby, shaking her head in disbelief, as tears streamed down her face.

Taylor grimaced as he struggled to get closer to his friend, his heart racing as he stared at Estela's furious expression. "I told you to leave him alone." Zahra said firmly, scowling as she raised her hand toward the dark haired girl slowly.

Sean moved up beside the pair, raising both fists as he glanced between them hesitantly. "I... I don't know what to do here, man." He said, his face conflicted by grief.

"Zahra..." Taylor panted, struggling closer to finally wrap his arms around his friends shoulders, grunting at the wave of force which emanated from her. "Zahra... You have to let her go..!" He murmured in her ear, holding her tightly as Zahra froze suddenly.

"Huh..?" She muttered, blinking as if waking up suddenly. Estela dropped to the floor, landing in a crouch, as she drew in a deep breath and glared at them. "I don't... what? Oh shit..."

"Estela... Are ya-" Rebecca began, reaching for the scarred girl, only to be firmly brushed aside as Estela got to her feet herself.

"I'm fine." She insisted, coughing briefly as she glanced toward Aleister, who was carefully approaching from Zahra's other side.

"Are you sure you're quite alright..?" He asked stiffly, casting a worried glance over her, before doing the same for Zahra.

"I don't need your pathetic pity!" Estela growled, glaring over Zahra's shoulder at Taylor, as he continued to hold onto her; until he was suddenly dislodged by a harsh shove from Quinn.

"What the hell is wrong with you?!" She demanded, glaring at Zahra furiously. "You could have killed her!" She cried, shaking her head as she took a step back. "You don't think there's been enough... bad things happen just recently?!"

"Quinn, don't-" Sean began, reaching out for the redheads shoulder, only for her to dodge our of his reach, hugging her arms around her torso.

"I..." Zahra balked, looking around in rising panic as whispers broke out around them. Taylor glanced around his friends, his gut churning at the distrust and fear blossoming in their expressions. He watched as Zahra's head fell forward, her hands clenched into tight fists at her sides. Behind the swaying curtain of her Mohawk, she mumbled darkly. "... Screw this." She raised her head, scowling around them all  and raising her voice. "Screw all of you!" 

The crowd parted, as Zahra stomped down the hall, wiping furious tears from her face. "Zahra, wait!" Taylor called, starting to move after her, only to be cut off by principal Hall as she rounded the corner between them.

"What is going on out here?!" She demanded, glaring around the students gathered in the hall, as they began to shift awkwardly and drifted away as inconspicuously as they could.

"Ahem... There was a-" Aleister coughed, glancing around briefly before straightening his jumper. "A fight, Principal Hall." He explained weakly, clearing his throat awkwardly.

"Pftt, call it what you like." Estela sneered, scowling at Aleister as if offended by his attempt at diplomacy. "This was nothing compared to what's yet to-"

"You are all supposed to be in class!" Principal Hall said firmly, glaring around the lingering students as they hurried to disperse into their various classes. She turned, calling after Zahra with a frown. "Miss Namazi! Where do you think you're going?!"

"... Anywhere but here." Zahra scoffed, storming away down the hall. Without bothering to look back, she held up her middle finger and continued straight out the front doors.

"... Crap." Taylor sighed, rubbing the back of his neck tiredly. He bit his lip and glanced around as a wave of awe whispers rippled through the hall.

Principal Hall turned, fuming as she glared around the remaining students. "The rest of you, get to class!" She snarled furiously, shepherding everyone out of the hall, as Taylor lingered at the back of the crowd.

Everything just keeps getting worse... He thought, looking after Zahra forlornly. Raj was right... We- he shook his head, his hand clenching into a tight ball at his side as he drew in a deep, stabilizing breath. I have to make it stop. He thought determinedly, before Principal Hall reached him and ushered him to his class. He was prevented the opportunity to act upon his new conviction, his day filled with too much preparation for upcoming exams and events before the big night; prom.

By the time the school day finally finished, he was utterly exhausted, and admittedly not sure he could deal with his friends or the fallout between them from the mornings events. He hurried out the back doors, and quickly walked over to the coffee shop on Main Street. Armed with fresh coffee, he hunched over a notebook, scribbling at the bottom of an already cramped page. There has to be a way to stop Redfield, to set everything right... He thought, frowning as he sipped his coffee. Something staring me in the face... I just have to find out what it is! He thought, growling to himself in frustration as he slammed his pen down and turned to glare out of the window. The longer this goes on, the more we're all gonna be pulled apart again... He thought, huffing a deep sigh as his phone chimed, message notifications popping up on his screen. ... I don't wanna lose everyone again. He thought despondently, before hesitantly reaching for his phone.

He couldn't fight the slight twitch of his lips as he saw Jake's alias, recalling with affection all the support the man had loaned him over the difficult weekend. The smile faded before it could bloom however, as he read his message. Hey, Boy Scout... did something happen with you guys? Becca seems kinda upset.

He huffed as he rolled his eyes, shaking his head as he wondered where he would even begin explaining, if he were actually able to. You trying to get me to spill classified information there, Top Gun? I think you're pushing the boundaries of this relationship a little... You've gone straight for the hard stuff, and not even tried bribery! He sent back, snickering to himself as he imagined the pilots grin.

Oh? And what kinda bribery would I be needing? Besides my rugged good looks and charm? Jake replied, as Taylor bit his lip to contain a grin, his heart lightening at the pilots easy banter.

Wow, mister ego... You're pulling out both of those, huh? Well if you've been working without either so far, I think I might be in trouble facing you with them! Taylor sent back, attaching a shocked emoji for good measure.

Jake's reply was swift, and only a single word, but conveyed his cocky attitude and his amusement, as easily as if he were present. Definitely. 

Taylor laughed, drawing in a deep breath and savouring the affection and light-heartedness which Jake's messages had inspired. He hesitated a moment, before finally sending another message, this time a genuine reply to the pilots obvious concern for his sister. It's a long story.

High school drama? Jake asked almost immediately, clearly aware that Taylor was giving him a more serious response.

Yeah. Taylor hedged, biting his lip guiltily as he considered briefly, the wild idea of opening up to the pilot about everything; before rapidly, brutally dismissing the idea. He'd think I was crazy... Hell, it's a wonder he doesn't already. He thought, shuddering as he imagined Jake's reaction to the full truth of his morbid past.

Alright, well... Jake replied, seeming to sense Taylors reluctance to say anything further. Taylor felt guilt tug at his heart, wishing he could say something, anything, to alleviate the pilots concern and frustration. Let me know if you need to get away for an afternoon. I know a great diner, a few miles outta town... Taylor felt his heart thud heavily in his chest, relief and gratitude consuming him at Jake's kind and thoughtful offer. Burgers the size of your head. He laughed at Jake's follow up message, biting his lip as a pleasant warmth began to radiate within him.

Kinda sounds like a date, Top Gun... He typed out, pausing as his felt his pulse race, his blood thudding loudly in his ears. He bit his lip hard, and deleted the message, shaking his head as he instead sent a vague acceptance, attaching a smiling emoji to the end and imagining Jake's amused bark of laughter. I'll let you know. He set down his phone with a fond grin, feeling refreshed from the pilots interjection, when his phone suddenly chimed again. He snorted as he picked it back, expecting another cocky reply from the pilot, but was surprised to find a new message awaiting him.

Hey. Taylor almost choked on his coffee at the blasé greeting of the girl who had ignored him all day.

Oh my god, you haven't replied to my messages all day! He sent back, scowling at his phone as if it were the girl herself. Where are you? He asked, concerned as to just where she'd ended up.

Zahra the Witch stalks the highland plains, feasting on the blood of the innocent. Taylor sighed and rolled his eyes, flopping back in his chair as he shook his head at his phone. By which... I mean I'm drinking a smoothie in the mall parking lot. She admitted a moment later, as Taylor snorted and tapped his foot against the opposite chair. Bracing for the parental showdown of the century when I get home...

Taylor winced, his heart aching for his friend despite not actually having any real understanding of just what she would face upon returning home to face her father. He sent back a sad emoji in response, biting his lip guiltily when he couldn't think of anything further to say.

... Is everyone okay? Zahra asked a moment later, clearly reluctant to ask but desperate to know. I didn't kill anyone, did I? Her messages came through almost as one, barely a beat passing between them as Taylor felt his heart sink in sympathy.

No. Estela was fine, she left a little after you, barely even bruised. He assured, biting his lip briefly before shifting awkwardly and sending another message. All of us are fine too... Are you okay? He added quickly, hoping to divert her attention from the rest of them, while also admittedly concerned for her.

Yeah. Zahra replied, but after only a few seconds, it was followed by another. No. Again only seconds passed, before another message chimed into his inbox. I dunno. She finally admitted. There was a long pause, and Taylor felt his heart melt as he imagined her looking around the crowds despondently, before finally; another message arrived. My phone's about to die... I'm gonna finish my smoothie and get home...

Text me later? Taylor asked, frowning at his phone as he wondered just what his friend might fave upon returning home.

Zahra's reply was swift but brief, only a single letter, but enough of a promise for him to let her go for the time being. He was about to lower his phone again, when a message from Rebecca pinged into his inbox, and he groaned as he debated ignoring it briefly, before finally opening it up. Hey. How're you holding up?

Not great. Taylor replied, feeling guilty that he half hoped his vague response would be off putting enough for the redhead to leave him alone.

Same. Rebecca replied instead, as Taylor grimaced, his mind wandering back to the mornings events. I feel like crap...

Why? You didn't do anything. He sent back quickly, frowning as he thought back to Jake's messages, worrying about Rebecca. She should be able to talk to him, he obviously loves her to bits... He thought, shaking his head in exasperation.

Exactly. Rebecca texted, and Taylor frowned, leaning forward to prop his elbows on the table, as a flood of messages poured into his inbox. I coulda done more to stop that fight with Raj. And all that crazy shit with Zahra... Taylor shook his head and snorted, wondering of the redhead really believed she was the only one who felt that way. I just feel so outta my depth here. Like, everyone else is trying really hard to deal with this, and I'm just this dumb girl, caught up with dumb high school drama...

Taylor rolled his eyes and scrubbed a hand over his jaw, drawing in a deep breath and puffing out his cheeks as he exhaled it slowly. You know that's not true. He finally sent back, though he doubted Rebecca would actually believe him.

Rebecca replied to his message quickly, and he snorted at the blatant disbelief in her words. If you say so... He chuckled quietly, moving to lean back in his chair again, as she sent another message on the heels of the first. I gotta goto cheer practice now, but I'll talk to you later!

Byee... Taylor replied, feeling as if there were nowhere near enough sarcasm in the message, but sensing that it would likely prove to be a good thing for when he spoke to her later. He finally set his phone down again and scrubbed his hands over his face, glancing up as the café door bell jingled.

"Hey." Raj said shortly, looking around awkwardly as Taylor felt his eyes widen in surprise.

"Raj! What are you doing here?" He asked, shaking his head and blushing as he realised how accusatory he sounded. He cleared his throat and averted his gaze guiltily, biting his lip as he recalled the argument from earlier in the morning.

Raj sighed, shifting guiltily as he looked over at Taylor sheepishly. "Looking for you." He finally admitted, sliding into the chair opposite Taylor, and leaning forward to look at his notes. "Hates sunlight, incorporeal form, can control animals..." Raj read aloud, as Taylor flushed and glanced around in embarrassment. "Dude, are these notes on Mr. Red, or Dracula?" The large boy snorted, as Taylor pouted and snatched his notes away, shoving them quickly into his bag.

"You get that the whole coming here alone thing was on purpose, right?" He asked, pouting petulantly as he glanced at Raj, before lowering his gaze to his coffee.

"Yeah, dude." Raj said, waving a hand dismissively. "I figured that was the case when I saw you sneak out the back door after school and book it down the road..." He said, pausing to frown at Taylor curiously. "So, why didn't you tell anyone where you were going?"

Taylor toyed with his coffee for a long pause, before finally sighing and looking up at Raj tiredly. "Because someone has to figure out how to stop Mr. Red... And-" he swallowed thickly, his eyes blazing with guilt as he met Raj's curious gaze. "I don't want to risk anyone else." He finally admitted in a quiet voice.

"Huh." Raj hummed, looking over at Taylor quizzically. "Didn't peg you for the martyr type, little dude." He said at last, looking around the café as he sucked in a deep, shuddering breath.

"It's not like that." Taylor sighed quietly, shaking his head slowly, as he poked at his coffee dispassionately. "I'm just... tired of seeing my friends get hurt." He said, swallowing thickly as he turned to look out the window at the passing town folk and cars. "And after what happened this morning..." He added, drawing in a deep breath, and exhaling it shakily, as he shook his head and finally looked back at Raj. "I think maybe we all need a little time apart anyway." He said sadly.

Raj stared out the front window, tapping his foot on the ground restlessly. "I'm sorry, Taylor." He said quietly, his unblinking gaze still locked ahead of him. "I know I can be a real jerk about Mr. Red stuff dude. Its just..." He paused, holding his breath for a moment as he visibly tried to reign in his rising temper. "Every time I think about him, I get mad about... about what happened, all over again." He growled, his large hand curling into a fist on the table. "Then I get pissed at everyone else, for not being as mad as I am." He vented, glancing at Taylor finally, before quickly looking away again.

"You've got more right than any of us to be mad..." Taylor murmured, trying to bat down the guilt surging in the base of his throat. "For what it's worth... I'm sorry, that I pulled away."

"Whatever, dude." Raj muttered, clearly uncomfortable with the direction of their conversation. "We don't have to rehash all that." He said, turning back as he noticed Taylor avidly shaking his head.

"No, I..." He said, swallowing as the words tried to choke him to keep him from saying them. "I'm as guilty as anyone else; hell, I'm probably the guiltiest party there is. I pushed you away, and honestly... I kinda did it to everyone, not just you." He paused, his jaw aching as he sucked his tongue briefly and tried to draw in a deep breath. "I... I pushed all of you away-"

"Except Diego, dude, but-" Raj countered, his eyes widening at Taylors continued attempts to apologize, clearly still uncomfortable with their discussion. 

"Believe me I tried. But then, I dunno, I guess I realised how much I really needed him." Taylor admitted, looking up and meeting Raj's stunned gaze with a broken expression. "And I'm sorry, that I let it stay the way I did, for far too long... I-"

"Jeez, little dude..." Raj mumbled, looking away as his cheeks flushed with obvious embarrassment. "Uh... I mean..." He paused, taking a breath quickly, before looking up at Taylor with a small smile. "Thanks. I appreciate that, man."  The two of them fell into a long silence, as the coffee shop bustled around them. Until finally, Raj began to chuckle quietly.

"What?" Taylor asked, raising a brow curiously as he surreptitiously checked himself over to make sure he hadn't spilled something on himself without noticing.

"Nothing, I just..." Raj hummed, as a rare, genuine smile spread across his face. "I just remembered something funny... I was thinking about this time I ran away, and... and my lil cuz came to 'rescue' me. They always knew how to..." He trailed off, rubbing his forehead tiredly as he huffed and glanced back at Taylor. "Eh, you probably don't wanna hear about that..."

Taylor leaned forward in his chair, propping his chin on his hand as he smiled faintly. "No, come on... I want to hear." He said quietly, gesturing for Raj to continue.

Raj eyed him dubiously for a moment, before he smiled and began again. "Okay, so, like I said... I had just run away, and man was my backpack heavy... The amount of pointless crap I had shoved in there dude, I'm surprised I could even carry it." He huffed fondly, glancing over at Taylor briefly, before looking back down at the table. "I was hiking deeper and deeper into the woods, so determined and proud of myself for leaving my old life behind. I don't remember how long I'd actually been going, before I decided it was time for a snack break."

Taylor chuckled, raising a brow at Raj knowingly. "I find that very hard to believe Raj..." He teased, as Raj too began to laugh.

"Ahem, so anyway," Raj coughed, calming himself so he could continue. "I set down my backpack on this stump, right? And I got some Cheesyfish crackers... And I was totally bummed dude, 'cause they got squished, and I was determined that meant I couldn't eat 'em!" Raj laughed, shaking his head in feigned sympathy for his younger self's distress. "So then suddenly, I heard this twig snap in the underbrush, right? Leaves crunching, ferns rustling and there i am, pulling my little slingshot outta my bag..."

"Dude, you were pretty lethal with that thing." Taylor huffed, smiling as he remembered Raj's skill when it came to shooting down cans with pebbles.

"Heh, it was a talent alright..." Raj admitted fondly, his lips twitching in vague reminiscence. "Anyway, I got all flustered, telling whoever it was to stay back while I scooped up a pebble. I aimed high, fired, and next thing I know there's this familiar little voice yipping in surprise 'cause I hit them."

"Oh man, they must have been pissed!" Taylor laughed, shaking his head as he leaned back in his chair, recalling the fiery temper of his young friend from a decade before.

"Damn straight. Out steps my lil 'cuz, rubbing their forehead with this angry little glare... and threatening to tell on me for shooting people with my slingshot again!" Raj chuckled, humming in fond remembrance. "We did the whole back and forth; why are you here, I came to find you, and I got stroppy 'cause my note specifically said not to come after me... and the cocky little doodlejump just looks at me and demands why I even left a note, if I didn't want people to look for me." He said, looking down at his lap and toying with the hem of his shirt. "I was... honestly kinda confused when they put it like that. I sat on the stump and they came and joined me, asking if I was running away because of them. I said no, of course it wasn't; it was because I heard my folks fighting again, and my mom had said the big D-word..."

"Divorce?" Taylor guessed as Raj nodded glumly, before beginning to laugh, quietly at first but quickly gaining volume.

"Yeah, I explained it to 'em... And I, I was under the impression that once the divorce happened one of them had to go to jail!" Raj explained amid his laughter, shaking his head at the memory. "I dunno where I got that idea, but man... I was so sure. They got real quiet for a bit after that, but I could see that little frown on their brow."

"The one that said they were trying and failing to understand something?" Taylor asked, grinning softly at the remembered expression.

"That's the one, doodlejump." Raj chuckled, scratching behind his ear. "They finally asked how running away helped, and I pointed out it weren't supposed to help, so they wanted to know why I was doing it. When I couldn't answer, they got up, planted their little fists on their hips and just... Dude, I don't think I've ever been so righteously scolded before." Raj snorted, clearing his throat before pitching it slightly higher in mimicry of a childs voice. "Well, I think you're being selfish! If you run away, who's going to walk me home from school? Or help me find Gizmo when he gets out of his cage? And eat the crusts off my sandwiches?" Raj repeated, as Taylor shook his head in amusement, though he frowned slightly at the sudden flash of something darker beneath the large boys amusement. "'Course, I just said you'd probably do it..."

"What?!" Taylor yelped, shaking his head in feigned disgust as he wrinkled his nose. "Dude, I hated crusts, I would never have-"

"Heh, they said the same thing..." Raj chuckled awkwardly, shaking his head at Taylors reaction. "I just meant more that, you did everything else with them, you know?" Raj asked, huffing and visibly flushing when Taylor frowned and blinked at him in confusion. "They gave me that same look too..." The large boy chuckled, before sighing and shaking his head guiltily. "I guess, I was feeling a little left out. You two did everything together little doodlejump... Even going to Mr. Red's house first, just rubbed me the wrong way. They called me on it, my jealousy. Said that you guys were besties, but, we were family. Then, they just started shaking me. Like a lot... And demanded I stop being sad." He huffed, laughing quietly as he rolled his eyes. "Of course they then cheated at a race home, just to beat me."

Taylor snickered quietly, looking down at his coffee, as Raj finished his story, drawing in a deep, content breath, as the coffee shop seemed to turn a touch warmer around them. "That was cute, dude." He finally said, looking up at Raj's chuckle and reaching over to tap their his fist to Raj's lightly when the large boy offered it to him.

"Heh, yeah." Raj admitted, smiling so warmly, Taylor could barely remember the last time he'd seen him so genuinely relaxed. "It's kinda nice to think about something besides... all this."

"But man, I never knew your parents were having trouble back then..." Taylor said, frowning in guilty concern as Raj shrugged dismissively.

"Yeah, well..." The large boy sighed, squinting through the front window briefly before looking down at his lap. "Dad could be kind of a jerk, and my mom worked a lot. Things were rocky enough back then already, and then after..." He paused, humming thoughtfully for a moment, before clearing his throat and forcing himself to continue. "After everything, they could barely stand to look at each other. Or me." He said quietly, as he and Taylor both turned to watch a tumble of leaves gusts silently past the window, down the street and away.

"You uh, you wanna hear something kinda messed up?" Taylor asked hesitantly, peeking up at his friend guiltily.

"What?" Raj asked immediately, his eyes widening in concern, as Taylor quickly shook his head and raised his hands in placation.

"For all the awful things he's done, I have to admit..." He said slowly, wincing guiltily as he bit his lip. "My life has gotten better since Mr. Red returned." He said, looking down at his coffee when Raj noticeably flinched and looked away, his shoulders tensing angrily. "If it wasn't for him, none of you guys would have started talking to me again... He brought us back together."

"Yeah, after driving us apart, little dude!" Raj growled, shaking his head as he drew in a deep breath. Finally he sighed, his tense shoulders relaxing as the fight left him. "Look, I get what you mean..." He said quietly, glancing over at Taylor at the reluctant confession, his gaze haunted by grief. "But Redfield is a monster. He's hurt people, and he'll do worse the longer this goes on." He said, jabbing a finger at the table top accusingly. "No matter how he tries to trick us, dude, we can't forget that all he wants is to drag us into that house and do the sane thing he did... years ago." He finished awkwardly, swallowing heavily before he sighed and shook his head. "All he wants is power, so he can escape. We can't let that happen... And we can't make the same mistakes we made as kids."

"Yeah... You're right." Taylor sighed, his heart sitting heavy in his chest as he ran a hand through his hair distractedly. "So. What do we do?" He asked, looking up to see Raj looking back at him with a helpless expression, his palms spreading briefly to show his uncertainty. "Well, let's see what we can put together..." Taylor sighed, tugging his notes from his bag again and sharing them with his friend. 

The pair spent the next couple of hours brainstorming fruitlessly, before finally parting ways for the evening. "Hey, don't sweat this dude..." Raj said with an almost affectionate grin, as they turned down opposing roads. "We'll find a way to fix this." He assured, his smile faltering slightly, before falling into a small frown. "... somehow."

"Thanks, but..." Taylor sighed, running a hand through his hair to scratch behind his ear. "I don't know how I'm gonna fix anything, when I don't even know what Mr. Red really is, or why he's doing this to us." He admitted, dejection pooling in his stomach like acid.

"I guess, all we can do is judge him by his actions." Raj said thoughtfully, shrugging his shoulder as he hutched his schoolbag slightly higher. "Try to find a pattern."

"Yeah... guess so." Taylor agreed, offering a weak grin and a wave, before starting home, his thoughts spiralling in his mind. He allowed himself to dawdle, processing ludicrous and genuine thoughts alike; from ancient legends of monsters to more recent tales of horror. But no matter the idea, nothing seemed to come close to Redfield.

He was so lost in his musings that his return home was mostly automatic, feeding Furball and Fiddler without thinking and leaving then both fresh water, before moving to his room in a daze to flop onto his bed face first. How can we stop something we don't even understand? He wondered, biting his lip as he curled his arms around his pillows and propped his chin upon them. What if he hurts someone else? What if we fight over something stupid, and he ends up actually killing someone for it? He bit his lip, worrying over their fight that morning, and if it might now have put Estela into Mr. Red's crosshairs. Oh god, what if we fight with each other? What if I fight with Jake..? He wondered, a sound of distress leaving his throat as he rolled back up from his bed.

Agitated, he trotted back downstairs, terrified at the thought of bringing yet more harm and pain to those he loved. Unable to sleep for his fears, he ambled his way to his garden shed in the pre-dawn hours, staring at the strange items he'd collected. 

Fiddler and Furball followed him down from the house, his kitten batting his head from the table above as he sat on the floor, while Furball curled into his lap and licked at his wrist worriedly. "Hey, quit that!" He chuckled, pleased at the minor diversion from his distressing thoughts. He scooped the small kitten into his hand,  and scratched her belly with his other, while she gnawed at the end of his thumb.

"I hope you two are getting along better than the rest of us..." He said quietly, laughing quietly when Fiddler hissed and swiped at Furball's nose, while Furball yipped happily and licked Fiddler's entire face in response. "I guess that's the best I can hope for..." He huffed, bringing the kitten to his face and nuzzling her gently. "You two are seriously adorable though, I gotta admit."

Fiddlers ears perked up suddenly at the sound of twigs, and Mal fluttered in through the rafters. "Ohhh, the dirty stop out returns!" Taylor leered, grinning up at the grow fondly. "I was wondering where you were." Fiddlers wide eyes tracked the crow as she squirmed, trying to go after him. Taylor scowled and pushed her between Furball's paws. "Watch this little hellion for me, Furball... Family do not eat each other in this house, no matter how oddball we are!"

Furball yipped happily, before flopping his head down atop the kitten, who struggled briefly, before falling asleep. Taylor huffed in amusement, getting to his feet with a groan. I envy you kitty... He thought tiredly, as he approached Mal's nest. "Glad to see you're feeling well enough to fly." He said, as Mal fluttered his wings and settled in his nest. Taylor was pleased to note the bird wasn't so jumpy around him, and took it as a sign of progress in their relationship. He peeked beneath the bird, and sure enough, spotted another crumpled wad of paper beneath his wing. "Is that..." He asked, tentatively reaching for the letter. "It is..! Another of those letters! This is getting so weird, where the hell are you even finding these?!" 

Mal's head twitched back and forth, his expression inscrutable, as Taylor eyed the letter thoughtfully. "I don't suppose you're gonna let me just have that, are you?" He wondered aloud, inching his hand closer slowly. "Please don't peck me, please don't peck me, please don't peck me..." He muttered, plunging his hand into the nest quickly and snatching the letter. "Woo!" He cheered, as Mal cocked his head sr him curiously. "Hey, you usually peck first and ask for food later... Don't gimme that look for feeling pleased I got this without getting a sore finger!"

He smoothed out the paper, and slowly began to read it through. "Dear E.B, sleep comes scantly of late. My boarding house bed teems with crawling creatures and ill dreams. Night after night I find myself drawn, and not knowing why, ever deeper into these sirenic woods, as terrifying as they are beautiful." He rolled his eyes, wondering why this person never took that as a darn good sign to get right on out of town and never look back. He sighed, shaking his head as he continued. "So it was that this past Sunday, one such walk brought me before a terrifying rite; in a bracken grove, I espied thirteen hooded figures, genuflecting before some golem beast of dirt and stone... A sacrament? A summoning? It is hard to say. But if the power that grips this town is some fell eidolon, I sense I have discovered its clergy." Taylor frowned, re-reading the passage briefly as he felt a strange swell of déjà vu, but shrugged it off quickly to continue. "I must find a way into their ranks... Oh, dude that is such a bad idea, I'm gonna just say that now. October seventh, Eighteen seventy one..."

Taylor sighed, pinning the letter beside the others as he shook his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. "So, this Filleus guy discovered some kind of cult in the woods, trying to raise some kind of monster... And his first thought wasn't to run, but to join in?" He drawled, scrubbing his hand over his jaw tiredly. "Well. I guess he wasn't winning genius of the year... But, what does all of this mean?" He growled in frustration, staring at the letters as if willing them to answer him. "I have to put a stop to all this, guys... But how can I stop it, when I barely understand it? Like this thing..." He muttered, reaching into his pocket and pulling out the ancient whistle he'd once gifted his best friend.

"I haven't seen this whistle in ten years." He said, shaking his head as he began to pace restlessly. "Then suddenly, it turns up in the woods? That can't be a coincidence. Almost like it was a... gift." He paused, blinking as an idea twitched in the back of his mind.

"Wait a minute..." He murmured, as things began to piece themselves together in his head. With his hands shaking, he drew his phone from his pocket, and quickly text Raj before he could lose his train of thought. Raj, I think I just figured something out...

He was surprised but pleased when Raj replied moments later, though he chose to ignore the lack of words in his message and instead jumped upon the chance to explain. Remember when we went into the woods to look for Diego? He text quickly, his thoughts all but exploding into his mind as he raced to type as fast as he could. And I found the whistle?

Yeah? Raj asked, clearly still half asleep, but trying to wake up and take Taylor seriously.

I don't think that was just a coincidence. I think Redfield left it there for me... Taylor sent back quickly, an odd mix of excitement and dread combining in his gut, as realisation dawned.

Makes sense. Raj replied, seemingly not as awed by Taylors epiphany as he had expected the large boy to be. Just one more trick to lure us in.

Right, except he hasn't tried to lure us into the woods for days. He just keeps trying to solve our problems... Taylor sent, shaking his head in disbelief as he leaned against the makeshift table. Attacking Ben for Sean, dealing with Michelle for Rebecca, healing Quinn; trying to kill Craig for me... He rambled, his messages growing shorter as the pieces connected before his eyes.

What are you saying, dude? Raj asked, clearly both confused and frustrated that he couldn't follow Taylors thoughts; or at least by the early hour. 

What if the things he's doing, aren't tricks? Taylor asked back, his eyes dipping quickly to the whistle before sending another message almost immediately after the last. What if they're just... gifts?

What the fuck, dude? Raj replied, and Taylor growled in frustration at his friends obvious frustration with him. Why the hell would he give us gifts?

I think maybe in the beginning, he did need us to cone back, to increase his power... Taylor sent back, partially ignoring Raj's question in favour of airing out his ideas as they formed. But, I think he brought us all back together, because he misses us... Taylor felt a rush of exultation, certain he finally had the answer within his grasp. He wants us all to be friends again.

No way! Raj scoffed immediately, and Taylor could feel the fury from the two word reply, as if it were radiating from his screen. After he killed one of us? And tried to kill someone else?! What he's doing is so messed up little doodlejump...

Yeah, but think about it! He was the same way back then! Taylor said dismissively, pushing away from the table to begin pacing again,his fingers typing and sending messages as fast as he could. Always going just a little too far, always playing just a little too rough. I don't think he understands that he's doing anything wrong... Taylor gasped suddenly, his eyes widening as he lowered his phone for a moment, before hurriedly typing and sending messages at a rapid rate. What if he doesn't even understand that he killed anyone? What if all hr knows, is we had a big fight, and then pulled away from him? Taylor paused, swallowing heavily as he stared at his phone. Like we did you... He sent, before quickly shaking his head and continuing. And he doesn't understand why! And he thinks that if he just makes us happy, we'll come back and see him again?!

Oh holy fucking shit, dude... I think I'm gonna barf... Raj's message took several long seconds to appear in Taylors inbox, clearly shocked beyond words at the picture which Taylor had painted for him.

Chyeah... Tell me about it... Taylor choked, as he lowered his phone and rubbed his tired eyes briefly. At the familiar chime and vibration, he raised the device once more, and bit his lip at the message waiting for him.

So, what do we do about it? Raj asked, and Taylor blew out a deep breath as he considered, wondering just what the right answer might be.

What if... We just tried talking to him? He asked, frowning as he typed out his thoughts straight into his messages as they occurred to him.

Oh sure, just invite him out for some coffee and just have a chat. Raj replied, his message dripping with sarcasm. Taylor scowled at his phone, his fingers battering into his buttons furiously.

Do you have a better idea? He demanded, shaking his head irritably. You said yourself, this isn't just going to stop happening... and if anything, its just getting worse. Taylor swallowed, stopping in his tracks as he drew in a deep breath and looked at the whistle in his hand. He clenched his fist tightly around the object, grimacing as he looked back to his phone determinedly. If I can fix this... then I have to try.

What, by yourself? Raj asked, his concern heavy in his brief message. Taylor drew in a deep breath, looking down at Furball and Fiddler, and then around his shed in dejection. Finally he looked back at his phone and for the first time in a long time, he was pleased he was alone.

If I'm wrong... I can't risk any of you getting hurt anymore. He sent back, blinking as he felt fear choke him briefly, imagining his friends hurt or worse yet; because of his actions, or inactions.

Wait, when are you thinking of going? Raj asked, and Taylor smiled tiredly, sensing the sudden spike of suspicion in his friend. He sighed deeply, steeling himself as he raised his phone and began to type.

No time like the present. He replied, walking slowly across the shed and standing in the doorway. He looked up at the sky, not quite ready to lighten, and he wondered vaguely the last time he had just admired the stars. His phone buzzed, and he looked down quickly.

Wait, you're going tonight? Raj demanded, blatantly shocked and distressed by the information. Like, right now? He clarified, as Taylor huffed weakly.

If Mr. Red was willing to kill, just to settle some petty argument one of us had with someone... He could be ready to do it again at any time. Taylor explained, swallowing heavily as he considered having been home just a few short minutes later, or if he had just kissed Jake again in his car, and missed the shadows movements from the corner of his eye. What if tomorrow we go to school, and Estela has been killed? Or Principal Hall? Or your mom? He asked, his heart clenching painfully as another thought struck him, and he typed it out to send off quickly. Or one of us..?

Raj's messages came quickly in return, his distress clearly mounting at Taylors growing determination. Okay, okay, but just hold on a sec! This is crazy, dude! He quickly sent, as Taylor guilt spike in his gut, imagining his friend scrambling about his room in distress. Like, what are you even gonna do?! Raj demanded, as Taylor took a steadying deep breath.

What we should have done back then... instead of just, running away. He decided, sending the message as his thoughts coalesced. I'm gonna walk into the woods, and tell Mr. Red to stop hurting people, and leave us alone.

What?! Raj's message all but vibrated with fear an concern, but Taylor was already slowly moving back through the shed as he read it, as well as the second which quickly followed it. Taylor, no! His phone buzzed suddenly, loudly disturbing the otherwise peaceful night, as Raj tried to call him, but Taylor pressed ignore and jammed the phone deep into his pocket.

"I hope I'm right about this..." He murmured, swallowing nervously. "But, just in case I'm not..." He hummed, grabbing his bat Candy from when he'd left it. Furball hopped up from the floor, his ears perked as he stared up at Taylor worriedly. "I can't promise its gonna be much fun, but you can come if you want..." He said, crouching and offering his hand to the fox, allowing him to scamper up his arm to perch on his shoulder.

He turned and walked out of the shed and across his garden to the tree line, where he paused briefly as he took several deep breaths. "Time for a little chat with an old friend..." He mumbled, his heart racing in his chest as he stared into the dark woods, and slowly walked forward.

The branches overhead seemed to swallow the sky, as he strode deep into the forest, glancing around nervously at every flickering shadow. "Okay..." He finally said, coming to an abrupt halt as his courage finally diminished, refusing to let him go any further. "This should be far enough." He said, his voice cracking as all around him, the forest seemed to shudder with chill winds and the cries of shrieking crows. He shivered, sensing a strange energy in the air; and on his shoulder, Furball sniffed suspiciously at the air. "I feel it too. He's close..." He said, petting Furball's ear gently, as his other hand gripped Candy tightly. "Alright. Let's do this."

Taylor planted his feet firmly, ignoring the rapid racing of his heart, as he cleared his throat, his breath white in the autumn air. "Mr. Red!" He called, a short spike of terror whisking through him, quickly replaced by shame at the thrill of excitement he felt after it.  "... Come out to play." He whispered, the words disappearing the instant he said them. He knew he'd been heard however, as the forest fell silent around him, and a slow fog began to roll in. "Here we go..." He murmured, clutching Candy with both hands, his knuckles white as Furball began to growl softly from his shoulder, glaring at something in the distance.

Taylor scanned the space between the trees slowly, staring into the darkness and finally, spotted a shadowy figure staring back at him. His blood turned cold, his heart racing as he stared at the familiar form, both terrified and elated; and ashamed of both sensations. He struggled to speak, his voice shaking as he firmly fought the urge to turn and run away. "C-come out. I... I want to talk!"

Redfield stepped forward, and Taylor felt a dizzying lurch as the distance between them stretched, snapped, and contracted. Suddenly; there he was, standing right in front of him, just a little too close. "... talk..?"

Furball's growls grew to a threatening snarl, the first vicious sounds Taylor had ever heard from the little fox. He reached up cautiously, keeping his eyes on Redfield, as he tentatively stroked his ear. "Easy, boy. Easy..." Ge murmured, swallowing nervously as he stared into Redfield's eyes. Two tiny pinpricks of light amid the darkness, terrifying but consuming. When Taylor spoke again, his voice was trembling. "You... you want to be friends, right?" He asked thickly, his heart lurching almost longingly; though he told himself it was fearfully.

"... friends... yesss..." 

"That's why you've been doing all this?" Taylor continued, voicing all the thoughts he'd sent in message form to Raj. "Why you've been visiting us? Giving us gifts?" He asked, as he held up the whistle in his palm, and dangled it for the being to see.

Redfield's eyes blazed suddenly, like burning neon as his ethereal body shifted excitedly. "Yessss! Giiiiiftssss! Friiiieennnnds!" Redfield reached toward him with a frightening eagerness, and Taylor was sorely torn by his desire to let the being consume him; and flee back to his home. Redfield froze suddenly however, as Taylor spoke again, his voice surprisingly firm despite his confliction.

"No, Mr. Red." He said thickly, shaking his head in a way he refused to think of as sad. "I know... you're trying to help, but... We can't be friends." He said weakly, clearing his throat and steeling his nerve, before trying again. "You killed someone... hurt people, do you understand? That's not something we can forgive." He said, swallowing heavily at the suddenly wide, seemingly shocked and remorseful eyes which blazed at him like fire.

"... nnnooooo... I heeellp, friends heeeeelllp..."

"Friends are people you trust..." Taylor said, his expression twisting with a strange sense of grief as he stared at Redfield. "... and we can't trust you, to do what's right." He said roughly, thrusting the whistle forward as it hung from its chain, and jingled quietly in his shaking grasp. "Here, take it back. Take it all back." Redfield slowly plucked the whistle from Taylors grasp, cocking his head in confusion.

"... take... back..?"

"Yes." Taylor said, swallowing heavily, as he finally took a single, deliberate step backwards. "And then just... leave us alone. Please." He said quietly, gazing up at the being he'd once called friend; and who even now, seemed to resonate within him.

"Alone... alone..." Redfield clutched the whistle to his chest as his lanky, incorporeal body hunching as he curled around it. "Allloooooonnnneeee..." His pained keening split the air, and Taylor gasped sharply as the being slowly began to dissolve into wisps of black smoke, blowing away on the wind. He finally let out a long breath as the last of the smoke faded, feeling suddenly lightheaded.

"I... I did it..." He muttered in disbelief, blinking before the corners of his lips began to twitch into a relieved smile. "He's gone!" He said, a giddy joy flooding his mind and heart alike, as he thought of how his friends would now be safe. He reached up to pet Furball's ear gently, as he turned to go home; only for his heart to stop, as he came face to face with a creature of boiling shadow.

"noooo... Nooooo!"

"Aaaaahh!" Taylor cried, his heart lurching back into action, and seemingly at double the pace it gad previously; as Redfield grabbed hold of him, his touch both burning and freezing his skin at once, as angry flames howled from the creatures skull like face.

"You wiiilllll plaaaaay!"

Chapter Text

12.

Ungrateful.

Ten years ago...

Flashlight beams bobbed in the dark, as Taylor and his friends crept through the woods toward Mr. Red's house. Taylor could barely breath, his heart was racing so fast, swelling with excitement in the base of his throat, with every step they took.

"You sure your parents won't notice we're gone?" Diego asked, his own excitement noticeable in the glint of his eyes, but backlit by concern.

"Nah, dude, they think we're all sleep in the back yard." Taylor replied, grinning and giggling with his friend as they exchanged an excited high five.

"I left the night light on in the tent..." Quinn huffed, leaning on Rebecca as she struggled to clamber over a particularly large root. "Just incase they look out the window."

"Rad." Zahra praised, bumping her fist to the redheads shoulder as she passed by, eager to push to the front of the group.

Taylor jogged to catch up to his best friend, who walked a few steps in front of the group. "Boy, it sure is spooky out here at night, huh-?" Before he could finish however, his friend scowled and stuffed their nose higher into the air, as they sped up to get ahead of him again.

"Psst, Taylor... What's wrong with Raj and his cousin?" Sean whispered, as Taylor frowned after his friend in confusion. "They're being all weird and quiet..."

Taylors frowned, glancing over at Raj, who was staring down at the ground s he walked, his hands stuffed into his pockets. "I don't know..." He murmured back, dodging a branch as he sidled up to Raj. "Hey, is... everything okay?"

"Not really." Raj admitted, glancing over at his cousin as he bit his lip gently, before sighing and looking over at Taylor. "Something happened to us the other day... it freaked us out pretty bad, and... well, they're super mad at you, dude..."

"At me?" Taylor yelped, his eyes widening in surprise. "What did I do? What happened to you guys?" He asked worriedly, more concerned about his friends than the fury he'd apparently inspired.

"On Wednesday, we were walking home from school, and this creepy old lady started following us." Raj explained quietly, glancing around nervously as if expecting the old woman to reappear any second. "I dunno who she was, but she looked really mean and... and she was all withered and half her face was all messed up..."

"Oh man!" Zahra exclaimed, her own eyes widening in shock and awe as she jumped a log on Raj's other side. "That's Ximaedra, the freak!"

"Who?" Taylor asked, frowning in confusion as he tried to understand both who the strange woman was and how it was anything to do with him.

"She lives in an old shack on the other side of town, out by that broken bridge." Sean explained quietly, glancing around at the twisting shadows around them. "My cousin told me, her face got melted off by acid."

"What?" Rebecca cried, stumbling slightly in her surprise. "My brother said she bakes 'lil clay coffins, and her face got burned when the oven exploded..."

"Pfft, since when do you listen to anything Jake says?" Taylor scoffed, grinning broadly as Rebecca shrugged guiltily, conceding the point easily.  "That's what I thought." He snickered, before turning back to Raj with a frown. "So... What'd she want?"

"I dunno dude!" He exclaimed, frowning worriedly as he glanced at his cousin once more. "She came outta nowhere and tried to grab us! We got separated and... She went after them, not me." He admitted crestfallenly, almost seeming ashamed of the confession.

"Oh my gosh!" Quinn gasped, looking up to the front of the group, and the stuff shouldered, angry figure leading them. "That must have been so scary..."

Taylor frowned and turned toward his best friend, who was blatantly pretending not to listen to the conversation. "... are you okay?" He asked tentatively, blinking in surprise when they huffed and scowled at him.

"Yeah..." They said, stomping forward through the forest noisily. "No thanks to you." They added, shaking their head in furious irritation.

"What do you mean?" Taylor yelped, his eyes widening as he jogged to try and catch up to them, as they charged ahead as if propelled by fury alone.

"I mean, your stupid whistle doesn't work!" They cried, whirling on him suddenly with a hurt scowl, forcing Taylor to pause and lean back from their invasion of his space.

"What?" He balked, his eyes wide as he blinked in confusion. He shook his head, frowning at the furious face before him, as his friend sniffed and scrubbed their arm over their eyes.

"You promised!" They cried, their eyes welling with tears even as they tried to fervently scrub them away. "... If I got scared, I could use the whistle and you'd come save me!" They said petulantly, sniffing to hold back another wave of tears. "But I blew and blew, and you never showed up!"

"Dude, the whistle's not magic!" Taylor protested, almost laughing at the incredulity of his friends fury. "I can't hear it from miles away!"

"Then why'd you promise you would?!" They demanded, holding back a sob with a fierce growl, glaring at Taylor accusingly.

"Because," he said, shuffling his feet in discomfort, as he hunched his shoulders and looked down st the ground. "I wanted you to feel safe..." He said quietly, biting his lip as he peeked back up at his friend. "I was trying to help you."

"Well I don't need your help!" They insisted, holding their head higher as a gleam of childish vindictiveness flashed in their eyes. "And I don't need your stupid whistle!" They added and before Taylor could stop them, they tore the whistle from their neck, and hurled it into the woods.

"Hey!" He protested, his eyes widening at the hurtful gesture. He shrank back from his friend, who continued to seethe and glare at him.

"Hey, little Doodlejump..." Raj said quietly, moving closer and wrapping his arm around their shoulders. "That was mean." He said quietly, trying to diffuse their terrible temper.

"I don't care!" They roared, shrugging themselves free of Raj's hold and stepping away, scowling at Taylor with hurt and hatred combined. "Taylors a promise breaker!"

"Am not!" He denied weakly, still to shocked to feel truly angered by the accusation. He swallowed heavily, sad for his friends experience, but at a loss for how to cool their temper and make them understand he hadn't abandoned them.

"If you're quite finished." Aleister sighed, walking past Taylor to gesture through the next batch of trees, to where a clearing lay. "We've arrived."

Taylor finally looked away from his friend, bumping their shoulder lightly as he pushed past to look at the familiar sight of Redfield's house; except shrouded by darkness for the first time.

"Sheesh..." Diego murmured, looking around uneasily. "This place is kinda creepy at night..." He said, ducking as he saw a bat flitter across the air above their heads.

"Only if you're a baby..." Sean sniggered, bumping his shoulder to Diego's affectionately and laughing when they mock tussled for a moment, as Diego feigned offence.

"Where's Mr. Red?" Quinn asked thoughtfully, as they approached the beings abandoned house as a group.

"Yeah, I thought he'd be able to come outside at night..." Rebecca agreed with a curious hum, frowning around the empty clearing.

"He's probably just being shy." Zahra said quickly, dismissing their queries and concerns. "So?" She asked eagerly, looking around then all with an excited grin. "Can we go in already?"

"I suppose that depends..." Aleister drawled, dusting off a cuff of his sleeve, as he glanced around his friends in disdain. "Is everybody done fighting?"

Taylor glanced over at his best friend, meeting their eyes briefly as he felt a rush of heat touch his cheeks, before quickly lowering his gaze to the floor at his feet. "Fine." He heard his friend mutter haughtily, and he felt his heart clench painfully at the sound of their fierce tone.

"We'll stop..." He agreed quietly, nodding vaguely as he wrapped his arms around his torso, and slowly raised his eyes to Redfield's house; excitement awakening in his gut once more.

"Then... lets go." Diego said, smiling as he stepped up beside Taylor and nudged his elbow gently. "Mr. Red's waiting." He said, as Taylor smiled back and nodded. They looked back to the building as one and together, Taylor and his friends headed inside. They crossed the dark, main room to the staircase he'd spotted the first time he'd entered, and finally; descended into the darkness below.

Present day...

Taylor panted frantically, as deep in the woods behind his house, he struggled to break free from the hold of a furious Redfield. Furball jumped from his shoulders to the ground, growling and snarling fearfully as his blue fur stood on end, tiny snowflakes emanating from him as he practically vibrated with fury.

"You... Willll... Plaaaaay!"

"Let go of me!" Taylor demanded, scowling as he twirled Candy up to his side. "You want to play?! Fine!" He cried, tightening his grip as best he could on the bats handle. "Lets see how you like baseball!" He roared, wrenching one arm free and swinging Candy at Redfield's face. "Hrah!"

The bat passed through Redfield's head leaving shreds of viscous shadow, clinging to the barbed wire. "Rrraaaaahhhhhhhh!" He screamed, hurling Taylor away from him.

"Oof!" Taylor grunted, as his back slammed against a tree. He fell to the ground, gasping for breath as tendrils of black mist crept along the ground, when Redfield slowly approached.

"Plllaaaaaaaayyyyy..." Redfield insisted as he drifted closer, only to pause as Furball bound forward to stand between them, his hackles raised and teeth bared, as the ground beneath his feet began to frost over. Redfield recoiled from the snarling animal, momentarily reverting to his insubstantial form as he hissed.

"Good boy..." Taylor choked, pushing himself to his feet with the help of Candy. "Now, lets get out of here!" He cried, breaking into a run as Furball snorted disdainfully at Redfield, before following close on Taylors heels. The woods seemed to warp and shift as Taylor ran, shadows tangling his feet like weeds. 

All the while, Taylor could feel him getting closer, and closer. "Taylor..." He called to him, as Taylor tried to block the being from his mind, focusing on the trees up ahead where they began to thin; and he was just able to make out his back yard.

"Aaahh!" Taylor yelped, as his shoe snagged upon a root suddenly, causing him to trip. He recovered quickly however, solidly planting his other foot on the ground to keep running. "Just a little further boy, c'mon!" He called to Furball, increasing his speed, and finally bursting through the tree line into his own back yard, just as the horizon began to glow with colour. "Almost..." He began, just as a thin, skeletal claw clamped around his wrist, stopping him short.

"Nooo..." Redfield growled, his grip tightening painfully, bruising Taylors akin; as it burnt beneath his touch. "Taylor... Yooouuuu staaaaaayyyyy!"

"No!" Taylor cried, struggling to free himself desperately, as he turned to face the furious face of the monster, his heart lurching confusingly in his chest. "Let me go!" He yelled, pleading with the being which restrained him. "Let me go!"

Furball snarled, trying to vote and freeze Redfield's legs, only for his teeth to pass straight through him. The little fox whimpered briefly, seeming uncertain how else he could help, as Redfield pulled; and Taylors feet began to slide along the damp grass, back toward the trees.

"Please!" Taylor pleaded, struggling desperately as inch by inch, he slowly pulled Taylor closer; until suddenly, sunlight broke over the treetops, slicing into Redfield's hand. The creature screamed, attempting to hold onto Taylors wrist, even as his fingers began to melt into smoke. "What's the matter?" Taylor huffed, glancing up at the lightening sky in relief, before scowling over at Redfield. "Not a fan of sunshine?" He taunted, yanking hard against Redfield's grip, and finally pulling himself free, as Redfield hissed and retreated into the shadows of the woods.

"Everyone... plays..." The shadowy being whispered, his fiery visage fading as his body dissolved into a river of smoke, which streamed back into the trees. A moment later, he was gone.

Trembling, Taylor sat down hard in the grass, a feeling of dread settling over him as his stomach churned with nausea. Furball whined, laying down beside him and resting his head in Taylors lap, his big eyes locked onto Taylors face in obvious concern. Taylor swallowed thickly, and stroked his head absently with a shaking hand, his eyes locked on the woods ahead of him. What... did I just do..? He wondered distractedly, shaking his head slowly as he forced himself to his feet. He quickly deposited Candy in his shed, before stumbling back to the house, trying to clear his head of the numbness which consumed him and finally falling back into his bed in a daze.

After barely an hour of trying to sleep, to turn off his thoughts for even a short pause, he finally gave up altogether and dragged himself out of bed again. "As if I weren't enough of a mess right now, I have to go to school too?" He sighed as he crossed over to his closet to get dressed, half debating taking the day off and going back to bed, before deciding against it quickly; desperate for the distraction from his own thoughts. "Well..." He said firmly, staring at his bruised body in the mirror, the marks still visible around his neck along with Craig's punch to his jaw; and of course, the dark new addition Redfield had given him upon his wrist, only hours ago. He cleared his throat, his gaze rising to his haunted deep blue eyes, as he tried to shove all of his concerns away and plastered a familiar false grin to his face. "I might as well look good doing it."

Fiddler twined around his ankles as he dressed, meowing loudly for attention. "Okay, just a minute, you..." He chuckled as he rolled up the high collar of his favourite black vest, carefully concealing his bruised neck, before adding a loose bracelet cuff to his wrist; covering the evidence of his encounter with Redfield.

Finally done, he scooped Fiddler up and set her down on his bed, laughing as she rolled onto her back and purred loudly, as he scratched her belly gently. "No one can be sad when there's a kitty tummy!" He chuckled, shaking his head fondly as she playfully grabbed at his finger with all four paws. "Be good today, okay? Shoelaces don't grow on trees... and I do not want to have to exhaust my finds buying new ones." He huffed, as she purred and nipped his finger affectionately.

Taylor drew in a deep breath as he turned back to the mirror, examining himself, as he combed his hair quickly. When he was finished, he nodded to himself firmly, exhaling in a heavy burst as he clicked his tongue. "... Let's do this." He said, grabbing his things before heading down the stairs and out the door.

He glanced at the woods briefly from his front doorway, shivering as he remembered how close he had truly come to being dragged back in. He huffed, shrugging his back higher on his shoulder as he trotted across his garden to the shed, in order to check on Mal before heading out. Furball greeted him at the door, whining worriedly as he sniffed at and then gently licked Taylors injured wrist, his tongue cool against the warm flesh. Taylor smiled tiredly, stooping down to scratch behind the foxes ears gently. "I'll be okay." He promised in a whisper, telling himself it was absolutely not immoral to lie to a fox.

Furball yipped, licking Taylors cheek briefly, bouncing in a circle around him before scampering away, back into the yard and up to the house. "I'm gonna have some serious issues with giving you up, when Lila comes back..." Taylor called after him, the fox pausing to throw what Taylor assumed was a cheeky grin over his shoulder, before continuing up to the house. 

Taylor huffed and shook his head, rising to search out his feathered friend and finally spotting him in the rafters, an old piece of paper clutched in his talons. "Got another letter?" Taylor asked knowingly, standing on his tiptoes to examine it as best he could. He frowned up at the bird, hardly able to read the neat scrawl at such a distance. "You gonna let me take a look at that?" He asked, only for Mal to ruffle his feathers and squawk at him angrily. "Well... We'll just see about that." Taylor groused, narrowing his eyes irritably.

He dropped his bag and carefully climbed up onto the work table, and held out his finger. "C'mere, little guy." He said soothingly, a sly smile plastered to his face. "You know I won't hurt you..." He cooed, as Mal cocked his head at him briefly, before dropping the letter and hopping onto Taylors outstretched finger. "Aww!" He chuckled, drawing the bird closer slowly. "Does this mean we're buddies now?" He asked in a babied voice, as Mal flapped his wings and crowed gently. Taylor one, bird nil... He thought, snickering as he quickly grabbed the letter in his free hand, before transferring Mal to his nest and hopping down from the table.

"Lets see what you got up to this time, Goddard..." He huffed, scanning the letter quickly. "Dear E.B... If your father disliked me before, he shall loathe me now. I've joined a cult!" Taylor rolled his eyes at the gleeful tone of the opening passage, wondering if the man had truly bee so proud of himself as it appeared. "After my last letter, I took to spying on the conclave in the woods. Last week, I finally managed to track down and befriend one if the scoundrels." He read, shaking his head at the seemingly idiotic man.

"I've learned they worship a 'Master' who grants supplicants its favour in the form of dark magicks. And golems, are the least of it!" Taylor shivered, his arms drawing closer to his chest as the memory of Redfield's furious image flashed behind his eyes. "Ahem... Psychokinesis, command of wild beasts; the things I've seen would make Marie Laveau blush!" Taylor frowned, lowering the letter as he considered the mans excitement, comparing it to his own as a child. Was I... as enraptured as him..? He wondered, utterly disturbed by the idea and even more so; by the fact that he already knew the answer.

Taylor cleared his throat, shaking out the letter with a trembling hand, as he continued to read quickly. "And the best news; when I asked if I might share in his Master's power, my new friend seemed not only receptive, but positively delighted... October thirteenth, eighteen seventy one. Oh Goddard, what an idiot pair we make." Taylor sighed, running his hand through his hair distractedly, before he pinned the letter to the back of the work table. "Just sayin' buddy, but its really gonna end poorly for ya." He said, sighing as he grabbed his things and took a last look around the shed, before shaking his head and heading out the door.

On the long walk to school, hw dug out his phone and tried to compose a long text to his friends, biting his lip as he winced in anticipation of their reactions. "Oh god... what the hell do I even say?" He wondered aloud, sighing heavily as he rubbed the back of his neck. "'Oh hey, just a heads up but, I tried to fix things and it went wrong and now Mr. Red is super mad'?" He shook his head, typing out a rough draft quickly. He hesitated as he read it through, before groaning and quickly deleting it to start over; only for his phone battery to die. "Aaarrggghh!" He growled, clutching the phone tightly in his hand and seriously debating whether to launch it into the woods at the side of the road.

"That is it!" He snarked, glaring at the device in his hand angrily. "If I live through all this crap, I'm buying a new phone and I'm toasting you in the microwave!" He griped, hesitating a moment longer, before shoving the dead phone in his pocket. He shoved his hands in his pockets and continued to growl and mutter to himself, glancing around distractedly and realising he was about to pass Raj's street. Guess I'll just have to warn everyone in person... He thought grimly, turning with a sigh and heading towards Raj's house. A mere minute later, he was walking up his friends driveway awkwardly. I haven't been here since... He thought, swallowing thickly as he felt his fingers curl into a fist. He took a deep breath, and forced himself to keep walking, determined to face his many wrongs; and at least attempt to begin putting them right. As Taylor approached the house however, he couldn't help but hear raised voices coming from within. "Is that..?" He wondered, frowning as he took a hesitant step closer.

"I was just going to see a friend!" Raj's voice rang out, and Taylor winced at the mixture of fury and grief in his voice. "I don't know why this is such a huge frickin' deal!"

"At four in the morning on a school night?!" His mother roared back, as Taylor quickly took a step back, glancing at the door uncomfortably. "I'm not an idiot, Raj!" She yelled, as Taylor looked around the street uncertainly. "I swear, if I find out you've been getting high behind the café again-"

"That was one time, when I was fourteen!" Raj yelled back, interrupting his mothers vicious diatribe. "Maybe if you were home more, I wouldn't have felt the need to sneak out!" 

Taylor took three more quick steps back, shaking his head as his heart lurched painfully. This is all my fault... He thought briefly, looking at the door guiltily. I... I should just leave... He thought, turning yo walk away as a furious snarl erupted from inside.

"You ungrateful..." Raj's mother growled hatefully, as Taylor felt his spine tingle with discomfort. "What the hell did I ever do to deserve this?! To deserve losing everything I loved... instead of-" Taylor's breath caught, his heart lurching as he found himself freezing in his tracks. "Raj... I didn't mean that. Raj, wait..." Raj's mother called, as the door slammed open and the large boy himself stormed out, his eyes gleaming with hurt and betrayal. 

He looked up, and stopped short upon seeing Taylor, standing awkwardly by his front lawn. "Taylor!" He cried, surprise lighting his face as he hurried over. "Holy shit dude, are you okay?! When you wouldn't answer your phone last night, I thought..."

"I'm alive..." Taylor said, ducking his head guiltily. "Somehow." He added lightly, glancing over at the house behind his friend. "Um... are you okay? It uh, sounds like your mom is... pretty mad."

"Yeah, it's fine, dude." Raj sighed, waving his hand dismissively. "I mean, it's not fine, but it's pretty par for the course." He said, shrugging his shoulders as Taylor frowned at him in concern.

"Dude, I gotta ask..." Taylor said awkwardly as Raj tensed, watching him suspiciously. "Is there anything I can do to help you..?" He pressed on, as Raj glanced back at the house with a pained expression.

"With this?" He asked quietly, sighing as he turned back to Taylor and shook his head dejectedly. "Probably not." He admitted, though his despondent tone was countered by the soft smile which touched his lips. "But... it means a lot that you want to. Thanks, Taylor."

 "Of course." Taylor said quickly, flushing with guilt as they began to walk down the sidewalk side by side, heading for the main road. Taylor took a deep breath, and with a brief glance at Raj, began to tell his friend everything that had happened when he went to confront Redfield in the woods; concluding by shifting the cuff he'd wrapped around his injured wrist, showing him the burn from where he'd been grabbed.

"Damn it... I knew something was wrong!" Raj growled, glaring at the marks on Taylors wrist, until he once more hid them away beneath his cuff. "I tried to come and help dude, but mom caught me sneaking out my window..." He sighed, rubbing the back of his neck guiltily.

"Raj..." Taylor sighed, smiling tiredly as he glanced up at his friend. "I wish you had been there." He admitted, shaking his head and looking down at his feet, as they continued up the road to school. "I should never have tried to face him by myself. If the sun hadn't come up at just the right moment..." He trailed off, swallowing thickly and shivering at the thought of how differently things could have ended. He looked up again as he drew in a deep breath, flashing what he hoped was a convincing smile to his friend. "Well, let's just say I could've used some backup."

"You've got it, doodlejump, anytime you need." Raj assured, clapping his hand upon Taylors shoulder briefly. "Next time, I'll do a better job of sneaking past my mom." He added with a wry chuckle. They walked in silence for a few minutes, listening to the wind ruffle the trees alongside the road. "Listen..." Raj finally said, clearing his throat as he glanced sideways at Taylor. "Mr. Red throwing you around like a rag doll sounds terrifying... but, you did the right thing."

"Yeah?" Taylor scoffed, holding his arm up again briefly, though the cuff he wore hid the awful marks. "My char broiled wrist begs to differ." He snorted, rolling his eyes as he lowered his arm to his side again.

"Seriously, dude." Raj insisted, shaking his head slowly. "Every time we all try to talk about stopping Mr. Red, we just end up arguing and nothing gets done. Look what happened yesterday, man..." He said, sweeping his arm before them dramatically. "It was about time someone took charge and put a stop to that monsters messed up 'gifts'."

"Maybe you're right... But, I'm still worried about just one thing." Taylor said, looking over at his friend with a conflicted expression.

"What's that, dude?" Raj asked, frowning at the concern marring Taylors expression.

"If Mr. Red was a nightmare when he was trying to be nice... What's he gonna be like now he's mad?" He asked, grimacing as he shook his head. Raj had no answer, but his expression grew troubled as they continued up the road toward the school. 

They separated to their different classes upon reaching the school, promising to meet up later in the day. Taylor found himself kept occupied throughout the day however, by both classes and coursework which he needed to complete before his exams at the end of the month. He was slightly dazed by the time he joined the rest of the school that evening, as they gathered to watch the second basketball game of the season. He was just about to head into the gym, when he caught sight of Jake and Rebecca off to one side and decided to make his way over to them. "Fancy meeting you two here." He greeted them, as Jake turned to him with a grin, briefly running his eyes over him in appraisal. 

"Yeah, crazy how we keep runnin' into each other." He drawled, smirking at the and playful jab of Taylors fist against his shoulder.

"Jake and I were just tryin' to think of a way to talk mom out of chaperonin' homecoming..." Rebecca explained, rolling her eyes as Jake and Taylor exchanged playful jabs and snickers. "Because ya know, ugh."

"Ooh, tough one." Taylor huffed, grinning as Jake drew back with a quiet snort and a shake of his head. "What about if you invited her to a fake fundraiser?" He asked, grinning as Jake and Rebecca both laughed. "Mayor McKenzie, you're invited to a benefit for... some disadvantaged group! Please join us in Salem on the night of your daughter's big dance."

"Oh my god, that'd be hilarious." Rebecca laughed, her grey eyes lit by amusement and glee at the idea.

"It is the perfect trap." Jake admitted, ruffling Taylors hair and smirking as he pulled away with a pout and tried to restyle his hair. "Tell her she's been nominated for some phony award, hell; I bet she'll even write a speech."

"Oh my god..." Rebecca laughed, shaking her head as she sighed wistfully. "It'd never work, but damn... a girl can dream. Thanks Taylor, I needed a laugh." She giggled, wrapping an arm around his shoulders briefly.

"Anytime." Taylor quipped, winking at the redhead fondly. He glanced at Jake for a second, clearing his throat before looking back at Rebecca meaningfully. "Uh, Becca, can I talk to you for a second?" He asked awkwardly, feeling intensely guilty for not confiding in Jake, but desperate not to get the man involved; especially if Redfield was only going to get more violent. "Something happened with our, uh, mutual friend. Something... pretty serious."

Rebecca's face fell, as she glanced at Jake briefly, before looking toward the gym. "Yeah, of course. But..." She said, clearing her throat as she stepped backwards. "Can it maybe wait 'til after the game?" She asked, looking back at Taylor imploringly. "Please?"

"Yeah..." Taylor said, running a hand across the back of his neck awkwardly. "Lets just, enjoy the game." He said, trying to paint an encouraging smile on his face, as Rebecca instantly perked and shook her pom poms at him.

"Great!" She cheered,moving forward and pressing a kiss to his cheek, beaming between him and her brother. "We're taking on the Greenvale Nutria tonight! Are ya hyped, guys?" She asked, as Jake tipped his hand back and forth, as he grimaced dismissively.

"Best I can do for ya is, mildly enthused." He said, shrugging his shoulders as Rebecca scowled and hit him in the shoulder with her pom pom, while Taylor tried to hide a grin. "That work for ya?"

"Jerk." She snarked, scowling petulantly as she tossed her ponytail over her shoulder haughtily.

"Brat." Jake replied easily, as he grinned crookedly at his sister. She punched him in the shoulder again, before skipping off toward the gym. Jake smiled as he watched her go, rubbing his arm lightly as he shook his head.

"It's good to see her smilin'." He said quietly, his cerulean eyes following his sister as she disappeared through the doors. "When she found out mom was goin' to be at the dance, I thought she was gonna freak out." He said, as he subtly slid his arm around Taylors shoulders and drew him closer. Taylor released a deep, content breath, a tension he hadn't noticed easing from his body as he leaned his head against Jake's chest, a rush of giddy warmth spreading through him as the pilot skimmed his lips lightly against the top of his head. "Hey, you." He murmured quietly, his voice rumbling in his chest beneath Taylors cheek.

"Hey yourself." Taylor hummed, unable to fight back a much more natural smile, as the pilot allowed him to draw back. He chuckled, as the two of them started walking toward the gym.

"So, stupid question..." Jake said, clearing his throat as Taylor glanced up at him. "And, uh, feel free to tell me to shut the hell up, if ya ain't in the mood to talk about it... But, how ya holdin' up?" 

"Oh, you know me, I'm-" Taylor began, though he paused at Jake's knowing sigh, glancing up to find the pilot looking back at him with a brow raised in challenge. "Okay... Honestly, I'm... barely holding it together right now. And I'm just gonna go ahead and say that it is not fair you know me well enough to make me admit that... even if it is kinda cool that you do." He said, looking up as Jake's hand settled on his arm, drawing him to a halt. 

"Tell me." Jake insisted, squeezing his wrist briefly and frowning at Taylors sudden hiss and the way he quickly withdrew his arm.

"Sorry, uh, slept wrong." He coughed, quickly hiding his arm behind his back and running his other hand through his hair, biting his lip when Jake's eyes narrowed at his hidden arm briefly. "I, uh, I feel sick pretty much all the time." He said by way of distraction. "Like, I'm gonna throw up, or just collapse on the ground."

"I'm sorry, Boy Scout, I wanted to get back last night and check on ya," Jake sighed, scrubbing his hand over his stubble guiltily. "But I was stuck on a late shift and I didn't wanna wake ya if ya were sleepin' or-" He continued, frowning at him regretfully.

"No, no!" Taylor said quickly, shaking his head as relief welled in his heart, pleased the pilot hadn't been around for Redfield to torment. "I, uh... Just got an early night anyway. Its fine, honestly. You already did so much for me, you... You don't have to-"

"Shut up, Taylor." Jake huffed, rolling his eyes at his babbling, as Taylor felt his lips twitch in amusement. "But seriously, don't try and handle it all alone... If ya need someone to talk to, or ya feelin' crappy... ya got my number; so damn well use it."

"Heh, thanks, Jake." Taylor chuckled, smiling at the pilots genuine concern despite his best efforts not to. "I-" someone knocked into him from behind, catching his wrist and making Taylor yelp as the cuff brushed his bruise.

Jake's expression darkened, and before Taylor could stop him, he'd reached for Taylors arm and quickly yanked the cuff from his wrist. "What the-" he choked, his eyes widening as he beheld the dark marks from where Redfield had grabbed him. "Taylor." He said firmly, his eyes glittering with fury as he met Taylors gaze, as Taylor squirmed and bit his lip guiltily. "Who did that to ya." He demanded. 

"I..." Taylors heart lurched as he gazed up at Jake's furious and concerned gaze, yearning to tell him everything, but desperately wishing to protect him from Redfield's vengeance.  "I can't tell you." He finally whispered, his voice breaking as his face fell, twisting with grief. "I'm sorry."

Jake stared at Taylor hard for several long moments, his clear eyes locked onto Taylors desperate, deep blue gaze as he seemed to struggle with something. Finally, he took a deep breath and exhaled heavily. "Taylor, I know somethin's up." He said slowly, his jaw locking briefly before he continued. "Ya don't have to tell me what it is..." He added with obvious reluctance, as his free hand rose to lightly drift his fingers across the lingering bruise on Taylors jaw. "Just, tell me how I can help."

Taylor finally broke free of Jake's intense gaze, looking down at the floor as he gently tugged his injured wrist free of the pilot and cradled it to his chest. "I'm not sure you can..." He said quietly, shivering at the thought of the pilot being hurt by Redfield while trying to help. "I just..." He swallowed thickly, tightly squeezing his eyes closed to prevent himself from releasing the stinging tears locked behind his eyelids. "I feel so powerless sometimes. A lot of the time, actually." He admitted, as Jake gently chafed his arm.

"Well, whaddaya know, Boy Scout..." Jake hummed quietly, his fingers crooking beneath Taylors chin and encouraging him to raise his head. He slowly opened his eyes, to find Jake gazing at him with cocky determination. "That's somethin' I can actually help ya with."

"Yeah?" He snickered tiredly, smiling despite his sombre mood as he looked up at Jake, gently taking his cuff from the man and reattaching it to his wrist. "You have a magic strength potion lying around?" He asked, snorting as he shook his head in fond amusement. "Maybe a radioactive spider?"

"Not exactly, ya cocky little..." Jake huffed, trailing off as his gaze finally softened slightly. "But what I do have is a few years Navy training. Ya know, military grade self defence." He said, rolling his eyes as Taylors eyes widened in surprise, his lips twitching in amusement, before he frowned once more. "I don't know if ya problems are the kind ya can punch... But, I'm kinda hopin' they are so I can pay 'em back for-" he coughed suddenly, grimacing as he forced back whatever he'd been about to say. "Learnin' how to defend myself in the Navy helped me feel stronger, and more in control... It might help ya feel that way too."

"Jake, thankyou, but I don't wanna make you-" Taylor began, only for Jake to silence him by pressing his hand over his mouth with a faint grimace.

"Trust me, ya ain't. Ya'd actually be doin' me a huge favour, by not makin' me start actin' like ya damn bodyguard." The pilot said lightly, though Taylor could sense the seriousness behind his playful words, as he gazed up into Jake's clear eyes once again. "So, whaddaya say? We got some time to kill before the game starts. I can show ya a few moves." He said, raising a brow when Taylor cleared his throat and looked away, the corner of his lip rising into a crooked grin when Taylors cheeks coloured slightly.

"Well, I guess... I mean, if it prevents bodyguard Jake from having to come out to play." Taylor said, feigning a pained sigh as Jake rolled his eyes and jabbed at his shoulder playfully. "Besides, I could never turn down the chance to learn some of your... moves." He teased, his mood lightening slightly as he winked exaggeratedly at Jake, who chuckled quietly and shook his head.

"Ya learnin' from the best, so be prepared to take it all in, Boy Scout." The pilot replied, raising a brow when Taylors cheeks stained pink, but choosing not to comment.

"Just, uh... go easy on me, okay?" He asked, clearing his throat as his lips twitched into a lopsided grin. "I'm not sure I could handle 'Top Gun at his peak'." He snickered, expecting Jake to laugh at him.

When the pilot remained noticeably quiet, he looked up to find Jake scrutinizing him with a burning gaze, which stole his breath and made his gut squirm pleasantly. "I think ya'd be surprised what ya could handle... given the opportunity." He said quietly, gazing at him a moment longer before seeming to finally blink himself free of his thoughts. "C'mon, Boy Scout... Let's find somewhere less crowded." He said, glancing at the surging bodies around them, before moving away from the gym.

Taylor bit his lip as he turned to follow, Jake's hand slipping into the hand on his uninjured wrist naturally, and gently tugging him along after him. And I thought Mr. Red's touch burnt... He thought, looking down at his too hot hand, as his cheeks flared with the familiar heat of a blush.

Jake led him to a mostly empty part of the parking lot, glancing around briefly before turning back to Taylor with a small shrug. "Seems like as good a place as any to me." He said, releasing Taylors hand as he began to shrug out of his jacket.

"Okay, just saying, but; this is already turning into the best lesson I've ever had." Taylor said, his eyes busily raking over Jake's torso as he tossed his jacket aside, the contours of his muscles easier to define even through his t-shirt, without the bulky green garment atop it.

"Way to focus there, Boy Scout," Jake snorted, rolling his eyes as Taylor deposited his bag beside Jake's jacket, hesitating as he glanced around to make sure nobody else was around, before removing his cuff and tossing it on top of the pile.

"Okay," he said, clearing his throat awkwardly, as Jake's eyes narrowed at his injured wrist, his jaw noticeably tensing. "So... Where do we start?" He asked curiously, biting his lip as he bounced on his feet slightly.

"If this were a real fight, ya'd wanna start out by lookin' for a weapon." Jake said, as he strolled into a slightly more open area. "But as it's just us, lets start with ya stance. Space ya feet out, 'bout shoulder width... And bend ya knees." He instructed, watching carefully as Taylor looked down at himself and did as he was told.

"Like this?" He asked, as he shifted his feet slightly further apart, bending his knees slightly as he bounced up and down in the balls of his feet a little, before looking back at the pilot.

"Better." Jake said, biting his lip and tipping his head thoughtfully, as he clearly tried not to laugh. "Not great... pretty bad, actually..." He snickered, running a hand through his hair, before clearing his throat and forcing himself to sober. "Ahem, but... better. Just, turn ya hips a bit, so ya not straight on. Smaller target to hit. Like this." He said, stepping closer and putting his hands on Taylors hips.

Taylor forgot how to breath, focusing intently on the warmth of the pilots body before him, and the gentle but firm grip of his hands upon his hips. He swallowed heavily, as Jake turned his body so he was slightly more angled, his focus clearly locked onto his task. "'Kay... How's that feel, Boy Scout?" He asked, as Taylor hummed in his throat.

"Pretty good." He said quickly, his cheeks flushing guiltily as Jake glanced at him, before rolling his eyes and snorting in amusement.

"Ya stance, idiot." He huffed, and Taylor started guiltily, as he cleared his throat and looked down at himself to hide his obvious embarrassment.

"Yeah, that's... what I meant. Ahem..." He said, coughing briefly as he bounced for a moment, before raising his head to look back at Jake. "So, uh, what's next?"

Jake sighed as if pained by Taylors utter naivety, but his playful smirk as he took Taylors hands gently in his own alleviated his fears that the pilot was genuinely frustrated with him. He glanced down as Jake raised his hands til they were up near his chin, his breath quickening as he felt the heat radiate from the pilots skin to his face. "Keep ya hands here to protect ya face." Jake instructed quietly, as Taylor nodded vaguely. "And, make sure to clench ya jaw."

"Huh, why?" Taylor asked, looking up with an amused snort, his concentration utterly lost. "So I get that extra tough veiny forehead look?" He asked, snickering at his own joke.

"Not quite." Jake huffed, shaking his head in amusement. "It's to make it more difficult for ya jaw to break." He explained, as Taylor pouted at him.

"Way less fun than my idea but, whatever." He sniffed disdainfully, as he shrugged his shoulders slightly. "But... I guess that's a pretty good reason too." He said, as Jake rolled his eyes and sighed. 

Once the pilot had Taylors stance perfected to his satisfaction, he moved away to assume the sane position across from him, his eyes lighting with obvious excitement. "Okay. Lookin' good." He said, chuckling at Taylors waving eyebrows and cocky wink. "Now; hit me."

"Uh..." Taylor hesitated, glancing around uncertainly before looking back at Jake with obvious confliction. 

"C'mon." Jake insisted, even waggling his fingers toward himself encouragingly. "Throw everythin' ya got at ya opponent. Keep pushin', don't stop and give 'em a chance to recover..."

"Okay..." Taylor hedged, shaking the nervous tension from his shoulders as he broke out in a slow, crooked grin. "Better brace yourself." He warned playfully, as Jake grinned back at him. "I don't wanna toot my own horn," he said leadingly, winking as Jake snorted at his obvious underlying meaning. "But, I'm pretty strong."

"Good." Jake hummed, his eyes darting over Taylor briefly as he tossed his hair from his face. "Show me what ya got, Boy Scout."

Taylor bounced on his feet briefly, hesitating to move forward and attack as his heart stuttered in nervous, excited anticipation. "And you're... sure about this?" Taylor asked, biting his lip as Jake rolled his eyes.

"Taylor, I promise ya, I'll be fine." He snorted, shaking his head at Taylors obvious concern. "I assure ya, I fought way worse and way uglier than you."

"Well, duh, I mean... Let's face it, I'm pretty damn hot, here." Taylor scoffed, tossing imaginary hair over his shoulder as he grinned broadly.

"That ya are." Jake conceded quietly, startling Taylor as he blinked at the pilot in surprise, his cheeks slowly colouring as his gut coiled with pleasure. "But try and focus on the lesson for now, and then think about ya own... ridiculous hotness, later." He said, clearing his throat as the skin beneath his stubble tinted pink briefly. Taylor ducked his head, blinking up at the pilot from under his eyelashes, as pleasant heat poured through his veins. "Now, c'mon Boy Scout... It don't have to be a hard punch, just try to hit me... right here." He added, tapping his left cheek and rolling his eyes at Taylors sound of distress, before he quickly got back into position.

"Okay..." Taylor said quietly, clicking his tongue as he tipped his head briefly. "If you say so!" He said, bouncing on his feet a few times, before rearing back and aiming straight for Jake's cheek. His blow was easily deflected by the pilots left arm, which diverted his fist upwards while Jake struck out with his right hand toward Taylors exposed rubs, tapping the area gently.

"Direct little thing, ain't ya?" He snickered, as Taylor waved his brows at him. "That weren't bad though actually..." He admitted, grinning crookedly as Taylor beamed back at him. "Stick with short jabs, so ya can bring ya hands back in faster." He advised as the two of them reset their positions. He waved his brows and wiggled his fingers at Taylor to encourage him to try again, and with a brief shared grin, the pair continued to spar.

Taylor threw himself into the training, slowly gaining confidence as he settled into his stride, and continued to launch attack after attack, occasionally driving Jake back a step in order to deflect. "That's it!" Jake praised grinning as Taylor picked up his speed and almost grazed the pilots side. "Ya gettin' the hang of it!" He added as he dodged a well placed blow.

"Guess I've got a good teacher." Taylor snickered, surprised to find he was enjoying himself, as he shimmied out of the way of Jake's counterattack.

Jake chuckled, his clear eyes lit with encouragement and pride as Taylor continued to lunge and jab at him. He spun out of the way as Taylor threw another punch, flashing a cocky grin and throwing Taylor a wink. "Maybe one day ya'll be as good as me..."

Taylor huffed and rolled his eyes, before breaking into a sly grin. "I'd rather be as good as that guy..." He said, pointing behind Jake. The pilot frowned as he turned to look, and Taylor grinned as he wound back his arm and landed a light punch square on his jaw. "Gotcha, Top Gun." He snickered, as Jake stared at him in surprise. 

"That don't count, you cheated!" Jake groused, though a wide grin slowly stretched across his face. He chuckled, rubbing his hand across his stubbled jaw briefly, as he shok his head and sighed.

"Awww..." Taylor cooed, stepping closer and raising a brow as he tentatively brushed his fingers over the area he'd jabbed. "Want me to kiss it and make it better?" He asked, biting his lip as Jake's cerulean eyes rose to meet his playful, curious and even hopeful gaze.

"Well, I mean..." He huffed, pretending to consider for a moment as he glanced away, his lips twitching with amusement as he cocked his head thoughtfully. "It couldn't hurt, right?" He said, looking back at Taylor with a grin.

Taylor fought and failed to contain a grin, as he leaned in close and pressed a gentle kiss to Jake's jaw. The pilot's arm curved about his waist, holding him close as he then pressed a light kiss to the pilots cheek. He drew back briefly, his eyes flicking up to meet Jake's, before he leaned close once more and brushed his lips over the pilots. "... Better?" He murmured, his fingers curling into Jake's t-shirt as he remained close, barely a breath of distance between them.

"I dunno, I think that last one needs a little more work..." Jake muttered, the hand at Taylors back curling slightly as he tugged him closer and met his lips in a hungry kiss which made Taylor hum with desire and delight combined, as he arched closer within the pilots hold. He groaned as Jake devoured his every breathy whimper and groan, relishing the fierce but gentle touch of the pilots lips against his own.

When at last Jake released him, although not enough to fully retreat from him, Taylor grinned and bit his lip. "So... better now..?" He asked, giggling when Jake huffed and rolled his eyes.

"Much." He replied, chuckling as he shook his head lightly. "Everything but my ego that is. I can't believe ya got the jump on me like that..." He admitted ruefully, gazing down at Taylor fondly.

"Never underestimate the element of surprise." Taylor snickered, biting his lip as he smoothed out Jake's t-shirt, before he peeked up at him with a cheeky grin. "I'm kind of surprised it worked to be honest... You being the military trained hero that you are."

"Heh, don't go gettin' cocky." Jake huffed, batting his chin playfully with his fist. "Next time I'll have ya ass."

"Promise?" Taylor asked, raising a brow and startling a laugh from Jake, as he shook his head and grinned down at him.

"Ahem..." He coughed, clearing his throat and pointedly avoiding giving Taylor an answer, though the pink skin beneath his stubble gave Taylor hope. "Well, I guess that's as good a lesson as any to leave our trainin'." 

"Wait, that's all there is to it?" Taylor asked, his eyes widening in surprise as Jake snorted and finally released his waist, stepping away to collect his jacket and Taylors bag.

"Nah, nowhere near. But I'd say ya got a decent handle on the basics." He said dismissively, as he handed Taylor his bag and shrugged into his jacket. "Besides, I feel better knowing ya can clearly handle yaself."

"Well, thanks for doing this anyway..." Taylor said, slinging his bag to his shoulder. "I feel like I could... I don't know, punch a bear." He snickered, as Jake snorted and rolled his eyes.

"I'd avoid any bears for the near future." He advised, shaking his head at Taylors feigned fierce expression. "Now, c'mon... Games about to start." He said, tipping his head back towards the gym. He said, as Taylor sighed and pouted, reluctantly turning away. Jake slung his arm around Taylors shoulders, grinning down at him as he led him back to the gym; and for the entire walk, Taylors heart was light with the memory of the pilots kiss.

As they entered the gym, Taylors felt his cheeks flush, sensing eyes turn his way as he and Jake found themselves seats together, the pilots arm never leaving his shoulders until they were seated. He peeked at Jake, who winked and flashed him a dazzling grin, before they both began to laugh quietly, imagining the whispers and wild speculations they'd be subjected to before the end of the game. They cheered and applauded as the basketball team drifted onto the court, but Taylors joy soon melted to concern, when he noticed Sean's obvious distraction.

"Ya friend doin' alright?" Jake murmured quietly, his clear eyes sharp as he too followed Sean about the court throughout the first quarter, his movements just a second too slow for his environment.

"I don't know... I thought he would be stoked to be back out there after last time, but..." Taylor shook his head, worrying his lip as his mind began to churn with thoughts of Redfield, concerned that his friend might have somehow been affected by the beings power.

"Hey, Steve Rogers is a smart guy..." Jake said quietly, discreetly reaching down to squeeze Taylors hand. "I'm sure its just nerves." He said, as Taylor clutched at his hand almost desperately.

"I hope so..." Taylor murmured, looking down at their hands as Jake laced their fingers together, his lips twitching with the faintest hint of a smile as he glanced at the pilot. "... Thanks." He said gratefully, squeezing Jake's hand again, before looking back at the court, just in time to see Sean pivot and pass the ball to Tom, narrowly preventing a Greenvale player from knocking the ball from his grip. He glanced upwards, as the buzzer signalled the end of the first quarter, before looking back at the players. He saw Sean searching the crowd, and smiled when he heard his friends erupt into loud cheers from a few seats away.

"You can do it, Sean!" Quinn cried, bouncing up from her seat and clapping enthusiastically. 

"C'mon, Gayle!" Jake called, as Taylor glanced sideways and raised a brow at him. "... I got twenty bucks ridin' on this game." He admitted with a lopsided grin, as Taylor snorted and shook his head fondly.

"Awwwoooooo!" Rebecca cheered, as she and the other cheerleaders tried to encourage the team.

"Yay, sports." Zahra drawled unenthusiastically, though Taylor supposed it spoke volumes of her true feelings, that she bothered to cheer at all.

"Go Gayle! Give 'em Hayle!" He called, grinning widely as he clapped and cheered to Sean encouragingly. "You've got this!" He yelled, as Sean seemed to shake himself out of whatever had been bothering, throwing a thumbs up at him, before getting into position for the second quarter. "God, I hope he has this..." Taylor muttered beneath his breath, gnawing his lip gently as he watched the second quarter pass by in a blur of fancy footwork and bouncing balls. 

When the halftime buzzer sounded, Taylor wasn't sure who was more relieved; himself, or the team. He watched as they jogged to the benches, while the cheer squad started their dance routine. "Come on, Wolves! Lets hear ya howl!" Rebecca cheered, as Taylor frowned, watching the team sit in obvious dejection; one member even attempting to sneak out, before Sean called him back and began to talk to them with urgent motions of his hands. I hope you knock some sense into them, Sean... He thought. 

A pleased smile slowly crept across Taylors face as the team noticeably perked, jumping up to cheer together loudly. "Go Wolves!" He whooped and clapped, as Rebecca and the cheer squad finished their routine, watching the team jog back out onto the court.

"Think ya friend managed to whack some team spirit back into 'em." Jake said, gesturing with his chin towards the team as the second half began. Taylor hummed in agreement, flashing Jake a bright smile as the team scored a few points, slowly closing the gap until only one basket would allow them to pull ahead.

"Looks like you might win that bet after all, Top Gun." He said, grinning as one of the team members passed to Tom, who dribbled towards the basket.

"Never count ya opponent down, until they can't get back up again..." Jake said, as Taylor glanced over and raised a brow at him, the pilot chuckling as he shook his head. "Didn't sound half so wise out loud." He admitted with a wry grin, as Taylor snickered at him, turning back to the game to watch Tom dodge past a Greenvale defender and line up his shot.

"Wha-augh!" 

Taylor shot to his feet at Tom's pained cry and sudden jerk, his eyes widening as he dropped the ball and began to swipe frantically at his shoulder. "What the hell?!" Sean yelled, rushing closer to his friend, but skirting around something on the floor. "Someone's pet tarantula get loose?!"

Taking advantage of the distraction, a Greenvale player swooped in to grab the ball, but then recoiled suddenly; the game coming to a screeching halt as players backed away from the center of the court. Taylor flinched as shouts began to ring out from the bleachers, Jake's hand squeezing his as he shot to his feet at the sound of Rebecca's scream. "Eeeeek! It's in my hair!"

"It's okay!" Taylor called, hopping over a newly vacated seat, as people began to flood away from the bleachers quickly. "I got it!" He said, as he brushed a huge spider from her hair and tossed it away.

"Look out!" Quinn cried, her eyes wide as she pointed at another seat nearby. "There's another one!" She yelped, shaking her head as one landed in her own hair.

"Where the devil are these blasted things... coming from?!" Aleister demanded, growling as he fought to swipe them from his jumper and keep them away from his friends.

"Guys..." Zahra said, her voice uncharacteristically trembling, as she stared above then with wide eyes and pointed to the ceiling. "Look up."

Dread filled Taylors hollow stomach, as he slowly lifted his gaze, looking up to see a dark hole in the ceiling and hundreds of spiders crawling out of it. "Oh crap..." He murmured, as the gym dissolved into chaos around them. Spectators and players alike, scrambled for the door, as spider flooded down the walls. His gaze returned to Sean, who was staring at Tom in obvious horror, as his friend clutched the side of his neck. 

"Tom!" Sean cried, rushing forward suddenly as the basketball player swayed on his feet, stumbling towards the bleachers. As Tom collapsed to the floor, Sean managed to make it to his side, and grabbed his shoulder.

"Oh no... No... Not again, no..." Taylor muttered, his heart racing as panic churned in his gut like nausea, his breath quickening as he watched the devastation which had been unleashed upon the gym. 

"Taylor..." The sound of his voice barely registered in his ears, as his eyes darted around the room, fear clogging his throat like cement. "Godammit, Boy Scout, look at me!" Jake's irste roar made him wince, and he gasped as he blinked and turned to the pilot, who's concerned gaze swept over him worriedly. "What the hell-"

"All my fault..." Taylor murmured almost inaudibly, swallowing as he looked down at the court, where Sean was trying to keep his friend conscious. Tom's head drooped, and Sean searched the gym quickly, now nearly devoid of people; but filled with a sea of scuttling spiders, which were headed the sports stars way. "We have to help Sean... He needs to get Tom outta here." He said louder, preventing Jake from asking anything about his comment, though his frown revealed there would certainly be words to be shared later.

"Not sure he needs our help..." Jake said quietly, pulling Taylor close to keep him away from the spiders, as his sister and their friends fought off spiders as best they could. He tipped his chin towards Sean, and Taylor looked over to see his friend had found a lighter and was popping the top from a can of hairspray. 

"Oh... wow." Taylor breathed, his eyes widening as his friend flicked over the lighter and struck a tiny flame. "Uh, we should probably... move!" He said, as Sean scowled and aimed into the thick of the spiders, spraying a plume of blue-orange flame as them as he combined the hairspray with the naked flame of the lighter.

"Yeah!" The sports star cried, his voice booming through the gym. "Get some!" He yelled, as unnatural hissing filled the air, causing Taylor to wince and cover his ears, attempting to shy away from the carnage around him. 

Taylor panted heavily, looking to Sean's left as a spider launched itself from the wall, aiming for his face. "Sean, your left!" He cried, kicking aside a large spider which scuttled closer to where he and Jake stood back to back, fending off spiders from both sides. He looked over to see his friends swing his flamethrower around, toasting the spider in mid-air. Taylor breathed a sigh of relief as it fell to the ground, it's legs twitching as it continued to burn.

"Jake! Lets try and move towards Sean! The spiders are thinning!" He called over his shoulder, glancing back to see Jake nod in agreement. He looked back as they began to try and stomp, kick and swipe their way off the bleachers, continually glancing up to where the spiders had begun to flee Sean's fiery wrath; only the largest continuing to advance on him, their fangs bared.

"You want some too?" He heard Sean growl, blasting a spider with a burst of flame. "Happy to oblige..." He said, toasting three more spiders to his right. "Hasta la vista, spider!" He said, shooting a plume of fire at another spider, only for it to dodge. "Aw, hell no!" He growled, aiming and firing again, only for the spider to dodge again. Taylor continued to glance at his friend, watching as the spider evaded his every attack, always staying just a little ahead of the flames. "Fine, you wanna play like that..." Sean finally growled, aiming a burst of fire to the spiders left. It dodged right, and Taylor hiccupped a giggle, as Sean stomped it flat for its efforts. "Then I'm changing the rules!"

Taylor yelped, a sound of disgust leaving his throat as a spider scuttled forward with unnatural speed, crawling onto his shoe. "Urgh! I do not think so, buddy! I am so not into you!" He groused, reflexively jerking his foot and launching the spider into the air. It landed on its back with a heavy thump, and Taylor quickly stepped on it to finish it off.

"Ya doin' alright, Boy Scout?" Jake asked, brutally stomping on anything which came within range of him. Taylor nodded, humming in vague assent as he watched a spider rear up on its hind legs, waving its front two at Sean menacingly.

"Ooh, scary." Sean chuckled, before hitting the spiders belly with a jet of flame, blasting it off its feet. "I'm scarier." Breathing heavily, Taylor sagged in relief, as his friend looked around himself and slowly lowered his weapon. He glanced around himself, still stomping on the spiders which were anywhere in range. All around, spiders were retreating out of doors and windows, leaving only the squished or charred corpses behind. "That'll teach you not to bite my best friend." Sean growled, stooping to sling Tom over his shoulder in a fireman's carry, and backing away to the door. "Taylor! C'mon!" He called, as he carried Tom out of the gym and into the cold night air.

"Okay, Top Gun... If we jump from that row, we should be able to make it to the doors." Taylor panted, grabbing Jake's hand and tugging him to the bench he'd indicated. Without giving the pilot a chance to pause, he launched forward, landing amid the carcasses of spiders which Sean had left in his wake. "C'mon!" He cried, pulling Jake along with him as they fled with the few remaining people in the gym.

Outside however, they were quickly caught up in a panicked mob, forcing their hands to separate suddenly and sweeping them in opposite directions. "Jake!" Taylor cried, desperately trying to see where the man had been dragged away to, but the writhing mass of bodies was too thick to see past. "Aleister?! Rebecca?!" He called, trying to shove his way free of the squirming masses. "Anyone?!" He cried, gasping when he heard Rebecca call back to him at last.

"Taylor!" She yelled, as he narrowed his eyes, barely able to make out a waving arm at the edge of the shoving and pushing bodies surrounding him. "Over here!"

Taylor grunted as someone stepped on his foot, gritting his teeth as he began to shove the crowd away from him, shimmying his way to the edge of the crowd and finally bursting free. He shook his head, and hurried away to where Rebecca, Jake and Sean were huddled around an unconscious Tom. "Oh no..."

"Looks like he's been bit a few times." Jake said, rising to his feet and moving closer to Taylor, his fingers ghosting over his jaw briefly in obvious relief. "Malfoy's callin' an ambulance."

"Come on, Tom... say something!" Sean pleaded, his hand resting lightly on his friends shoulder as he gazed down at him imploringly. "... wake up..." He pleaded brokenly.

"Sean..." Taylor said, swallowing thickly as grief gripped his heart, moving around Jake to approach his friend. "This... this is all my fault. I'm so, so sorry..." He said, his hand rising to his mouth as he felt bile pool at the back of his throat, his breath quickening as grief and guilt struck him hard.

"No, this has to be Mr. Red's doing..." Sean said, shaking his head as he looked up at Taylor in surprise, his eyes widening at the broken expression Taylor wore. "Why would it be your fault?"

"Because earlier..." Taylor began, pausing as shame and guilt gnawed at his hollow stomach. "I told him to stop giving us gifts. I... made him angry." He admitted, as Sean recoiled from him.

"Wait, what?" He turned at Jake's confused tone, turning to see the pilot frowning at them in confusion. "Who the hell is Mr. Red?"

"Uh-" Taylor choked, cutting off as the noise from the crowd rose suddenly, and he heard a familiar shout ring out above the commotion.

"Back off!" Zahra yelled, as Taylor and the others exchanged nervous glances. "I had nothing to do with this, you freaks!" She growled, as Taylors heart lurched fearfully.

"Oh no..." Rebecca choked, her eyes wide as she eyed the crowd nervously. "Not again!"

"Stay here." Taylor muttered, quickly dodging around Jake as he reached for him and hurrying to the crowd; following Zahra's shouts to find a group of several students surrounding her, shoving her from the crowd.

"Guys, be careful!" Michelle warned, carefully avoiding the commotion, though she watched from the sidelines with wide eyes. "Don't forget what she did to Estela..!"

"You idiots see about to see it first-goddamn-hand..." Zahra snarled mutinously, raising her hands toward the crowd.

"Zahra, stop!" He pleaded, as the girls eyes widened in confusion, when nothing happened. Emboldened, two students grabbed hold of Zahra's arms, dragging her toward the school.

"Get your hands off of me, you filthy muggles!" Zahra snarled, scowling between the lair restraining her murderously and struggling against their hold.

"Hey!" Taylor yelled, causing them to pause as he raced after them. "Let go of her!" He growled, grabbing one by the arm and hitting the guy with a short jab to the face. He tried to punch back, but Taylor easily blocked the shot. "I said... let her go." He said firmly, glaring as the guy dropped Zahra ti come after him.

With her arm freed, Zahra was able to slug her other captor in the gut, dropping him instantly. "You ever touch me again, you'd better be ready to lose some teeth." She promised darkly, visibly shaking as she turned away from the school.

"Where is she goin'?" Rebecca demanded, rushing up to Taylors side, as he dodged and then counter attacked the guy who had abandoned Zahra to come after him.

"Zahra!" He called, finally sending the guy running with a bloodied nose. "Wait!" He yelled, as he and Rebecca chased after her. When they finally caught up to her, Zahra was sitting at the side of the road, her head resting on her knees.

"They're gone..." She muttered, shaking her head slowly. "My powers are gone." She said, raising her head to look up at Taylor, a vaguely dazed, lost look in her eyes.

"Yeah, I saw..." He said quietly, swallowing heavily as guilt welled in his gut, his eyes stinging from the intense grief he felt for his friends loss. "Zahra... I'm really sorry."

"You say that like you had something to do with it." Zahra growled, her expression hardening as she looked up at him in rising suspicion.

"Taylor..." Rebecca said, resting her hand on his arm as he turned towards her, her gaze heavy with concern and fear. "What was it you said earlier? About makin' Mr. Red mad?"

"It's not like I meant to!" Taylor burst, spreading his palms as he exhaled sharply. "I just... I told him he had to stop hurting people for us!" He said, scratching the back of his neck guiltily.

"And you didn't think, maybe you oughtta warn us about that?!" Rebecca demanded, her concerned expression morphing into a furious scowl.

"Hey, I tried to tell you before the game! You didn't wanna hear it! Nobody ever wants to hear it!" He defended, his temper flaring at her accusatory tone.

"So, let me get this straight..." Zahra said slowly, getting to her feet and glaring at him, as he flinched and took a guilty step back. "There's this super powerful, homicidal shadow monster, who knows where we live and everything we do..." She growled, her voice rising in her mounting fury. "And you thought it wiykd be a good idea to piss him off?!"

"What should I have done?!" Taylor yelled, tears of guilt, frustration and grief welling in his eyes and slowly trickling over his cheeks. "He almost killed someone; again! In my front yard!" He cried, his voice trembling, shaking with desperation as he clawed off his cuff and raised his injured wrist for them both to see. "I didn't exactly get away unscathed, ya know?! Forgive me for thinking maybe I had already paid the price for my mistake this time! That maybe, just maybe I would get to warn you all; but that it wouldn't be necessary! Maybe..." He choked, shaking his head as he ran his hand through his hair, Zahra and Rebecca watching the motion in horror as they stared at his wrist. "Maybe I should've never made it out of those woods..."

"Cool," Zahra scoffed, recovering from the shock of his injured wrist and nodding sarcastically, as she spread her palms and narrowed her eyes at him. "So, what's your plan for when I almost get impaled on a tree? Or Becca? Or-" Zahra demanded, stopping suddenly as she clapped a hand over her mouth as she stared over Taylors shoulder in horror.

Taylors heart seemed to stop in his chest, desperately wishing he didn't already know what she'd seen. Slowly, he turned; and felt several pieces of his heart seem to chip away, as he saw Jake standing in the road behind him.

"What..." He frowned, glancing at his sister, as she covered her mouth with her hands. He swallowed heavily, slowly looking back at Taylor. "What did ya just say?"

"This... this isn't what it sounds like, Jake..." Taylor hedged, wincing at the sound of his weak protests.

"Really?" Jake scoffed, running a hand through his hair as he examined him, as if seeing him for the first time. "'Cause it sounds an awful lot like..." He paused, shaking his head in obvious distress and confusion, as Taylors heart shattered to tiny shards in his chest. "Taylor, did ya... Were ya involved in what happened to Craig?"

"Jake, I swear, if you try and tell me ya actually believe that, I'm gonna beat ya with a damn stick!" Rebecca snarled, glaring at her brother furiously. "He didn't do anything, he was at the party! Ya know that!"

"Ya don't have to do a thing yaself, to be involved." Jake muttered, though he sighed as he sheepishly accepted the point. He looked over at Taylor with a concerned frown, shaking his head slowly as he took a step closer and raised a hand toward him. "Then... what the hell is goin' on?"

"It's... complicated." Taylor choked, his hands curling into balls at his side, as his heart stuttered and withered in his chest. He looked down at the ground, hiding the grief and longing in his eyes, as he took a reluctant step back. "I'm sorry, it's just... Not safe for you to be involved."

"Did Tom know about all this?" Jake demanded, his tone hard as Taylor averted his gaze to the side, desperate to avoid seeing the pilots clear eyes so filled with fury and hurt at his rejection. "Because he seemed real safe when they loaded him into the ambulance just now." He snarked, as Taylor flinched and wrapped his arms around himself, his shoulders hunching as he shrank in on himself.

"Look, Taylor..." Jake sighed, clearly making an effort to reign in his temper and attempting to appeal to him once more. "I knew there was somethin' goin' on with y'all... I figured it was just personal stuff. Not my business." He said, and Taylor reluctantly looked up, his cheeks wet from his tears as he saw Jake's feet step up before him. His eyes met Jake's, the pilots gaze heavy with concern, hurt and confusion. "But now I hear ya talkin' about a 'shadow monster' who's tryin' to kill people, and some guy called 'Mr. Red'..." He said, shaking his head as he almost reached for Taylors jaw, before lowering his hand and swallowing thickly. "I thought we had somethin' Boy Scout..." He whispered imploringly, his eyes intent as he held Taylors gaze. "Why would ya hide this from me? After everythin'-" he trailed off, glancing at Rebecca's confused and concerned expression, as her eyes darted between them worriedly.

"Jake..." Taylor murmured brokenly, desperately yearning to tell the pilot everything. However, as he opened his mouth, he recalled the scene in the gym; the panic, the chaos and the danger, and his throat constricted painfully, as he hardened his gaze and forced himself to say the words which utterly destroyed his heart. "This doesn't concern you." He whispered, forcing himself to maintain a stoic expression, as Jake's jaw tightened in anger.

"Fine." Jake said curtly, stepping back from him as his cerulean eyes turned hard. "But I ain't lettin' ya drag my sister into whatever this is." He said, as Taylors fingers curled tighter into his mesh sleeves, ripping the fabric without even noticing. "Becca, let's-"

"Hey! I didn't get dragged into anythin'!" Rebecca growled, glaring at her brother furiously. "I'm just as responsible as Taylor."

"Becca-" Jake began, his eyes wide as he turned to his sister in surprise, shaking his head as he looked her over.

"I ain't some baby, Jake!" She cried, glancing worriedly at Taylor, who continued to gaze at Jake in obvious distress. "I don't need my big brother to come rushin' back from the military to save me! I can solve my own damn problems!"

Jake took another step back, looking hurt for a moment, before his expression quickly morphed into a scowl. "Guess I'll get outta ya face then. Hell, why not just get outta town, seein' as ya clearly don't need me anymore." He snarked, looking at Taylors stoic expression once more, before stuffing his hands into his pockets and turning his back on him.

"Jake, don't be such a damn drama-" Rebecca called, rolling her eyes at her brothers back as he walked down the dark road.

"You should go after him." Taylor said quietly, watching Jake move slowly further away from him, his heart lurching painfully with the pilots every step. "He loves you, he just wants you to be safe..."

"You should go after him." Rebecca snarked, though her gaze was concerned as she turned to look at Taylor. "He really, really cares about ya, Taylor... and I know ya care about him too. Go and tell him the truth, he'll understand, hell maybe he can even help-"

"I can't." Taylor said, shaking his head as he watched the pilot slowly vanish into the night. "I'm not about to put him onto Mr. Red's radar. It's safer for him... if he doesn't..." Taylor trailed off, sinking to his knees as he felt a wave of exhaustion sweep through him suddenly.

"Taylor-" Rebecca called worriedly, as Taylors shoulders began to hitch, his breath catching as he tried and failed to fight off the sobs which wracked his chest.

Jake... Taylor thought as he choked harshly, burying his face in his hands, as he suddenly felt overwhelmed and ebtirely consumed by guilt, exhaustion and hopelessness; reminding himself that he was once again, alone. "I just can't do anything right, can I?" He choked, trying and failing to contain his grief as his heart bled from the open wound of the pilots departure. And now... I've lost Jake too... He thought as his chest hitched, his tears pouring through his fingers; when he felt two pairs of arms wrap around him tentatively.

"Don't... tell anyone I said this but..." Zahra said awkwardly, her chin resting on his shoulder lightly. "I'm... I'm sorry, Taylor."

"Me too..." Rebecca said softly, her forehead resting against the back of his hand as she rubbed his arm gently. "For yellin' at ya and... and for not helpin', when I should've." She said, shaking her head minutely. "Raj was right all along. This is only gonna get worse, until we find a way to stop it."

"What if we can't?" Taylor choked, swallowing thickly as he tried to trample the overwhelming sense of loss which he felt. "What if you were right, and this is just too big for us? And now I've pissed him off... Everyone he hurts; Craig, Tom... It's all my fault..." He said, gagging on his own despair.

"Ugh, don't make me say it." Zahra groaned beside him, drawing Taylor from his grief momentarily.

"... Say what?" He asked, sniffing as he lowered his hands slightly, looking at her hesitantly. 

Zahra sighed, letting go and pulling Taylor to his feet with Rebecca's help. "I believe in us, Taylor." She said, grimacing at the optimistic words. "We're gonna figure this out, and we're gonna make it right. Because..." She paused, floundering for a moment as she flushed a faint shade of pink. "Friendship? I guess..?"

"Because friendship." Rebecca chuckled, laying her head on Taylors shoulder and holding him close, as she smiled at Zahra and curled around Taylors arm. "So, sleepover at Taylors house?" She asked, as Zahra rolled her eyes, but a faint smile twitched to life upon her lips, as she took Taylors other arm. 

"Definitely." She saud, flashing a teasing smirk at Taylor. "But I'm totally only in it for the kitty time." She said, laughing with Rebecca quietly at Taylors surprised huff. Taylor felt his aching heart swell with gratitude, clutching at each of their hands almost desperately; as together, the three of them continued down the road, side by side.

Chapter Text

13.

I'm Not Scared; Part One.

Ten years ago...

Taylors friends followed him late one night, as he eagerly led the way down a dark, winding staircase below Mr. Red's house. "Jeez, how deep do these stairs go?!" He wondered aloud, his eager feet hurrying down the stairs.

"Taylor, wait up!" Diego called, sounding concerned about his noticeable lead in the darkness surrounding them all.

"I can barely see a thing in this confounded darkness..." Aleister complained, his haughty tone trembling slightly with the first touches of fear. "Why exactly did none of you think to bring a flashlight?"

"Why didn't you?" Sean countered,his chuckle of amusement echoing through the darkness as Aleister sniffed and chose not to answer.

"Does anybody hear water?" Quinn asked quietly, though they could all hear her easily in the confined space.

Taylor rolled his eyes as his friends continued to bicker, a wave of cold air greeting him as he proceeded downward quickly, where the staircase opened out into a vast underground chamber. His eyes widening as he looked around, able to see by an unnatural but strangely beautiful glow. "Guys, come see!" He called excitedly, bouncing on his feet as he waited impatiently for his friends to catch up.

"Holy crow..." Sean whistled, looking around in awe as he reached the bottom of the stairs. "It's a cave!"

"Cooool..!" Zahra exclaimed, jumping the last three steps and landing in a puff of dust beside Taylor.

"Whoa..." He gasped, his words echoing distantly over pools of still, dark water. He glanced across the bottom of his staircase as his friends lined up, barely catching the shudder which passed over Rebecca .

"Brrr!" She chattered, rubbing her arms with her hands. "It's freezin' down here..." She said, looking around with an uncertain frown, clearly uneasy.

"Where's Mr. Red?" Asked Raj's cousin, as the pair joined them. As if summoned by their query, a billowing shadow swept into view.

"Here." Redfield rasped, his blazing eyes wide within the darkness, as if surprised they had truly kept their promise to come to join him.

"Aaah!" Quinn gasped, clutching at Rebecca's hand as she dodged around her to hide from the beings view.

"Mr. Red..." Taylor called, stepping forward with a smile. "We're here to play!" He said, smiling when the shadowy figure seemed to eradiate with pleasure.

"Yessss! Play!" Redfield cheered, seeming to shimmer and flicker faintly as he led them deeper into the cave.

"Aw." Rebecca cooed, seeming to relax for the first time as she caught up to Taylors eager lead through the cavern. "He made us a little clubhouse!"

"See?" Zahra crowed, dashing over and examining the says which had obviously been set up for them. "I told you guys coming here at night would be awesome!"

"So..." Diego said, glancing around the others uncertainly. "What do we do now?" He asked, seeming lost as to how to proceed, now that they were finally in Mr. Reds house.

"We-" Raj's cousin began, before clearing their throat and starting again. "I mean, I have an idea." They said imperiously, storming past Taylor to stand in the middle of the circle of chairs. "Mr. Red... do you want to play a game?" Redfield's eyes flashed and blazed, his happiness apparent in the way his shadowy body seemed to flicker. "I think that's a yes." Raj's cousin whispered to the others, giggling happily as they clasped their hands behind their back.

"Okay..." Taylor said, looking around the cave with a soft smile. "What game should we play?" He asked, shivering suddenly as a cold wind swept over him.

Redfield's flaming eyes seemed to both dull and intensify, becoming two bright beacons in the darkness. "Are... You... Scared..?" He whispered, and Taylor frowned at the strange uneasiness which sparked in his stomach.

"Pardon?" Aleister scoffed, raising a brow as he folded his arms over his chest. "Is that supposed to be a question, a suggestion or a game?"

"Oh!" Rebecca cried, brightening as she seemed to recognise the game. "My brother and his friends played that at our Halloween party last year!"

"Jake does fun stuff like play games?" Diego asked, snickering when Rebecca playfully jabbed his arm in response. "What? Normally he's just out being... Jake." He added weakly, grinning at Rebecca as she rolled her eyes.

"I... wish I could deny that." Rebecca conceded, as she sighed and shook her head. "My brothers just... active." She hedged in his vague defense, as Taylor snickered behind his hand.

"So... Anyway." Sean said, clearing his throat as he looked over at Rebecca. "How do you play?" He asked. As Rebecca began to explain the rules, Taylor frowned; glancing toward Redfield as he seemed to grow darker, almost as if light could no longer touch him.

"... and if everyone get's scared, the monster wins!" Rebecca said, as Taylor blinked and shook his head, turning back to her as his brow furrowed further. "Then, they get to pick the monster for the next round."

"That sounds kinda scary, guys..." Quinn said quietly, biting her lip as she frowned around the group. "Are we... are we even allowed to play that?"

"Who's gonna stop us?" Zahra asked, skipping around the available seats with an excited grin. "I mean, we already did a buncha stuff we're not allowed anyway, I don't think playing a scary game is gonna-"

"I don't know..." Taylor said, his stomach churning with something like nausea, his elation to be in Redfield's house slowly contorting into a flicker of uncertainty.

"Come on." Raj's cousin sighed, as if Taylor were being deliberately difficult. "This is the whole reason we came here." They reminded them all, looking around with a fond smile. "To play with Mr. Red! We have to play at least one round..." They said, rolling their eyes toward Taylor with a malicious grin. "Unless you're scared, Taylor?"

Taylor looked around the cave, his earlier joy and fascination fading, replaced by concern and rapidly growing fear. "... This is a bad idea." He said distantly, his eyes searching the cave roof.

"Sounds like something a chicken would say!" Zahra laughed, beginning to flap her arms and click like like a hen.

"I think we should go back..." He said, frowning as a shiver passed over his spine, his heart spiking in nervous anticipation of something. "If my parents find out we've snuck off-"

Zahra continued to flap her arms, clucking louder to drown out Taylors warnings. "Taylors a chicken!" She chanted, as Taylors fear melted into irritation. "Taylors a chicken!"

"Shut up!" He yelled back, glaring at her as he balled his hands into fists at his sides. "I'm not a chicken!"

"Then prove it." Zahra said smugly, smirking as she gestured around the small circle of seats.

"Fine." Taylor grit out, his temper swaying him as he stomped over to the circle, and everyone took a seat.

"Oh, guys, wait a minute..." Diego said, his eyes wide as he looked around at them all where they sat. "Who's gonna be the monster?"

The shadows pulsed, as Redfield sank back into the darkness. "Time to play..." He rasped deeply, and Taylor shivered at the returning sense of unease in his gut.

"Did..." Aleister coughed, clearing his throat as he looked around with obvious growing distress. "Did it just become colder?"

"This is creepy, doodlejumps..." Raj murmured, looking around the cave nervously. "I think Taylor was right..." He said, grimacing at the uncomfortable atmosphere which they could all feel building around them.

"Mr. Red?" Quinn asked curiously, tilting her head as she peered at the darkness where Redfield remained barely distinguishable among the shadows. "Are you going to be the monster?"

"Yesss..." Redfield hissed lowly, his eyes piercing through the darkness like lamps, as he began to stall the outside of the circle.

"Ooooh, this is gonna be good!" Zahra muttered, shivering in anticipation as she grinned around them all.

"I-I believe... I've had a change of heart." Aleister said, his eyes wide as he watched Redfield prowl around them. "I do not wish to play anymore."

"... Me neither." Quinn agreed, her eyes distrustful as she glanced over at Redfield, before looking toward Taylor.

"H-hey, guys..." Rebecca stammered, struggling on her chair as if straining against invisible bonds. "I... I can't stand up!" She said, her eyes wide as she looked at Taylor desperately.

"Yeah, those are the rules." Zahra scoffed, smirking expectantly as she watched Redfield continue to circle and study them.

"No!" Rebecca cried, her struggling intensifying as panic clearly took hold of her. "I mean, I can't stand up!" Her knuckles clenched white, as she fought to escape, the pitch of her voice rising to a shriek as her fear escalated. "I can't move!"

"What the heck?!" Diego cried, as he tried to rock himself side to side. However, despite his obvious efforts there was little movement below his waist; his lower body seeming as if it were glued to his seat like a magnet.

"I can't get up either..." Taylor admitted nervously, his heart racing as he looked around his friends, suddenly terrified of his own unnatural eagerness to bring them to such an ominous place.

Redfield continued to circle, as they all struggled. When he next spoke, his voice was different to the one which Taylor remembered. Stranger. Darker. "Children..." He seemed to growl, the cave seeming almost to rattle with the force of his words. "Are you scared?"

"Mr. Red!" Taylor yelled, his concern for his friends overwhelming him, filling him with dread and panic as he watched them struggle against the invisible bonds which kept them bound to the chair. "This isn't nice!"

"Nice?" Redfield rasped, a cackle splitting through the cavern, cold and cruel, and mocking. "Finally... it is time." Redfield said, his deep and rasping voice seeming almost wistful. "Time... to play..." His whispers echoed off the cavern walls, and Taylor started when two black claws clamped down on Diego's shoulder beside him. "Are you scared?!" Redfield roared, his shadowy form flaring with flames suddenly, revealing a gruesome and cruel grin of fire.

"Aaahhh!" Diego cried, his eyes wide as he panted and gasped for breath, clearly terrified of the being which held him.

"Dead." Redfield growled furiously, and Taylor cried out in shock as Diego gasped; and was sucked back into the darkness.

"Diego!" He called desperately, staring at the empty space where his friend had been. His fear flared into fury suddenly, and he scowled as he turned to look at Redfield. "What'd you do to him?!" He demanded, his heart racing as Redfield turned towards him.

"Are you scared?!" He roared, his shadows lit by furious flames which twisted his previously friendly appearance into that of a monster.

"I'm not scared!" He yelled truthfully, glaring at Redfield with tears of betrayal in his eyes, desperately wondering where Diego had gone and wishing he knew he were alright. Redfield hissed, surging forward as bloody red flames leapt from his mouth. Taylor couldn't help but flinch away from the heat, before looking back at the shadow creature with wide eyes. "Hey! You only get one chance to-"

"Dead!" Redfield growled, and Taylor gasped as an invisible force tipped him over backwards, slamming him into the cavern floor and pinning him down.

"... can't... move!" He choked, watching helplessly from the floor as one by one, the rest of his friends fell to Redfield's scares; until only Raj and his cousin remained.

"Raj..." Redfield asked, a parody of soft playfulness once again. "Are you scared?" He asked, almost tentatively.

"Screw you, dude!" Raj yelled, glaring at the shadow being as he cocked his head curiously.

"Ohhh?" He chuckled, his eyes like beams of light in the shadowy darkness which made Redfield's shadowy body. He reached one clawed hand towards the chubbier boys cousin, and instantly; Raj's attitude shifted.

"No, no no no!" He cried, his eyes widening as he began to struggle more fiercely. "Get away from my cousin, monster dude!" He pleaded. As Redfield seemed to chuckle darkly.

"Dead." He rasped, his fiery visage returning as Raj plunged backwards and the shadow monster slowly turned towards his cousin.

"...not scared, I'm not scared, I'm not scared..." They chanted repeatedly, staring in wide eyed horror at where Raj had disappeared from their view.

"What's that, little one..?" Redfield asked, his wispy appearance almost friendly as he drifted closer to them.

"I'm not scared!" They yelled, turning their small face toward the monster, contorted by fury and hatred. "I'm not scared!"

"Not scared?!" Redfield bellowed, his rasping and otherworldly voice echoing around then all in the cavern, his flames licked across his shadowy body, twisting his friendly face into a gruesome and fiery snarl. Darkness bled into the air around Raj's cousin, swirling onto a black vortex which lifted then off the ground. "At last..." He growled, as he drifted closer to them. Taylor watched in horrified silence, as the vortex built, swirling faster and faster, filling the cave with a sound like tortured screams.

"Nooo!" Taylor screamed suddenly, though he barely recognised the process, his eyes glued to the terrifying sight; unable to understand why he had ever been so excited to venture down into the depths of Redfield's house, guilt weighing heavy on his heart as he stared at his best friend in horror.

"I'm not scared!" Raj's cousin continued to chant, screaming the words into the darkness building, swirling around them. "I'm not scared! I'm not sc-!" Their chair slammed into the ground suddenly, shattering into a thousand pieces.

A small, lifeless body lay broken among the wreckage, their neck twisted at an unnatural angle; their wide, empty eyes staring directly through Taylor. "No..!" He yelled, his heart lurching as the air around his body suddenly became lighter, and he found himself able to move again. He lay on his side, staring back at the lifeless gaze of his best friend, as Raj's howls of grief tore into the night air.

Present day...

"No!" Taylor yelled, sitting up in his bed abruptly, nauseous with terror as his heart hammered wildly in his chest. "Oh, god..." He choked, tests spilling down his cheeks as he drew his knees to his chest and hugged himself, shaking with the force of his sobs.

At the foot of the bed, Furball stirred, staring sleepily in Taylors direction. "Mroooo?" He yipped curiously, skulking slowly up the bed to lick at Taylors hand worriedly.

"It's okay, boy..." Taylor said shakily, swallowing heavily between his hiccupping sobs. "We're okay. I'll... be okay." He sniffed, reaching down with a trembling hand to riffle his cook, blue fur. Beside him, Fiddler rolled over in her sleep, snuggling into the foxes side as she purred deeply. "I have to try and make this right... I have to." He said, shaking his head as he turned to gaze out the window despondently. "... But I'm not sure I ever really can..."

"Taylor?" Rebecca called tentatively, knocking on the door before peeking round, gazing at him worriedly. "Are ya alright?" She asked, approaching slowly to sit beside him. "Do ya ever not have nightmares..?" She asked, frowning as she swept his damp hair from his brow.

"I'm sure I must've had normal dreams once..." He mumbled, squeezing her fingers tightly as she slipped her hand into his. "I just, can't remember when." He admitted tiredly, swallowing thickly as he tried to shake off the awful memory from his nightmare.

Rebecca frowned, gently stroking her thumb across the back of his hand. "What about when J-" she paused, as Taylor winced in anticipation of the name, his heart clenching painfully as the redhead drew in a sharp breath. "After everythin' with Craig..." She finished weakly, though Taylor knew only too well what she meant.

"I didn't sleep..." He said quietly, looking down at his lap and picking at his duvet distractedly. "When I finally had to though, I had me head under my pillow... It, uh, it hid any noise I might've made." He said, peeking up at her briefly, before looking away.

Rebecca sighed, frowning as she reached up and coiled her finger beneath his chin, only for him to jerk his head away, a flash of grief flaring on his face before he could hide it. "Oh, Taylor..." She groaned, her frown of concern turning exasperated as she leaned back to look at him better. "Why won't ya just tell him? The both of ya are stubborn as mules! Ya obviously miserable-"

"You really want him involved in this?" Taylor asked, glancing over at Rebecca as his eyes clouded with fear. "Everyone we speak to is instantly put at risk... I'm not about to risk him too, are you?" He asked, shivering as he curled in on himself. "It's better for him, safer, if he hates me."

"Pfft, I don't think my brother could ever hate ya, Taylor." Rebecca scoffed, biting her lip guiltily when Taylor winced. "Sorry. But, I'm certain he's only stuck around so far 'cause he wants to be here for ya still... So why don't ya just go see him?" She asked, squeezing his hand as Taylor sniffed and shook his head.

"It's better this way." He said, his brows raising slightly as he saw Rebecca bite her lip and look away worriedly. "What is it? Are you okay? Is he okay? Oh god, did something happen?" He asked worriedly, asking questions so rapidly she could barely answer.

"Jeez, Taylor, take a breath already." She scoffed, rolling her eyes at him. "He's fine, physically anyway, but... I think he's seriously considerin' leavin' town, now. I heard him on the phone the other day, talkin' about meetin' a friend up north."

Taylors heart lurched, as he looked down at his hands, examining his fingers as if he'd never seen them before. "... Maybe it's for the best." He said quietly, his despondency clear, though he tried to hide his feelings about the pilots potential departure.

"Urgh, ya both so damn pigheaded." Rebecca growled quietly, shaking his head as Taylor avoided her frustrated gaze. "All either of ya have done for the past three days is sulk and mope, and I honestly can't decide if I wanna bang ya heads together or lock ya both in a room somewhere until ya... doin' all the gross things I don't wanna picture ya doin' together." She complained, sighing as she shook her head and ran a hand through her hair. "I know ya don't want him to go, Taylor, hell I don't want him to go! Tell him-"

"Becca... C'mon." Taylor sighed, finally looking up at her with a roll of his eyes. "You really think he's gonna believe us? You saw his face... And besides, even if he did believe-" Taylor paused, his throat thick with fear as he dragged in a deep breath. "I'm not about to let Mr. Red hurt him. And I know you feel the same..." He asked, looking her in the eye as she frowned and reluctantly turned away. "See? Just like I thought... Now, get off my bed you hussy. We might as well get ready for school."

Rebecca rolled her eyes, as Taylor tried to plaster a smile on his face, shoving at her gently to make her stand. "On another note," he added, grabbing her hand as he got to his feet. "Thankyou for staying the past few days... Its meant a lot." He said, drawing her into a hug.

"Of course..." She said quietly, her arms looping about him, as she rubbed his back and rest her head upon his shoulder. For a moment they remained that way, content to merely hold each other.

"... Okay. Sappy stuff over. Go away, I need to get pretty." He said with blatant false cheer, pulling away as he cleared his throat, his cheeks stained with a light blush.

"Pfft, charmin'." Rebecca scoffed, rolling her eyes as she smiled and shook her head at him. She frowned suddenly, glancing down the hall uncertainly. "... Ya sure ya parents won't mind me usin' their room..? Aren't they due back soon?"

Taylor purposely kept his expression blank, looking through his closet for something to wear. "Hmm, should be any time soon." He said vaguely, as he picked out his clothes. "And no, they won't mind." He added, before turning away to begin changing, hiding his hollow expression.

"Ya could at least wait til I leave the room to change!" Rebecca complained, swatting him round the back of the head quickly, before stomping off to go and get ready herself.

Taylors lips twitched in brief amusement, before he shook his head and began to get himself ready for the day, making certain to cover the various bruises he had still marring his skin. Within an hour, both he and Rebecca were ready, and the redhead was driving them to the school. After a brief hug and an affectionate goodbye, Rebecca turned to head to cheer practice, while Taylor turned to head into the main building, just catching up to Raj as he strolled up the front steps.

"Wow, dude... You look as bad as I feel." He said, his eyes widening as he checked Taylor over quickly. "Didn't sleep well?" He guessed knowingly, as they began to paused to talk at the side of the steps.

"Nightmares." Taylor agreed, rubbing his eyes tiredly for a moment, before dropping his hand with a sigh. "Nothing I'm not used to though..." He added, glancing at Raj as he nodded. "You too?"

Raj nodded ruefully, rubbing his own eyes slowly. "I can barely think straight, dude..." He sighed, shaking his head dejectedly. "Pretty sure I called my mom a fascist for asking me to take the garbage out this morning." He said, as they slowly dawdled their way through the doors.

They walked in silence, an unspoken understanding that they need not actually discuss their nightmares. As they walked down the hall, Taylor spotted Sean, walking in the opposite direction. "Hey," he called as they passed, catching hold of his friends arm. "How're you holding up?" He asked, his eyes flicking over Sean briefly as if to check for physical injury.

"Hanging in there." Sean sighed, smiling tiredly as he ran a hand over his hair. "How about y-" he began, flinching as mocking voices began to yell down then hall.

"Hey, Gayle!" They taunted, and Taylor frowned as he glanced down the hall, unable to pick out faces in the crowded hallway. "You throw that game on purpose, or are you just a one hit wonder? Maybe you shoulda stuck to football after all!"

Sean's jaw clenched tightly, as he scowled down the hall, his hands balling at his sides in fury. "Hey, don't let them-" Taylor tried to warn, but a moment later Sean was gone, chased by the mocking laughter down the hall.

"We're gonna have to do something about this Mr. Red situation," Raj sighed, watching Sean push through the crowds to find his tormentors. "Before one of us cracks."

Taylor stared after Sean for a long moment, his heart slowly picking up speed, until it was pounding loudly against his ribs. "Well, I for one am done taking hits." He whispered, his hand curling into a white knuckled fist, as he pushed aside his despondency. "It's time we start hitting back." He said firmly, his brow knitting into a scowl, as he turned to Raj.

"Yeah! Totally, dude!" He said cheerfully, bumping his fist to Taylors shoulder. His excitement faded somewhat however, as he frowned and lowered his hand again. "So, uh... what do you want to do?"

Taylor met Raj's curious gaze with a determined glare, before he turned to storm down the hallway. "Homework." He said, stomping away to find a secluded corner away from prying eyes, where he tugged put his phone and started a new group chat. Attention literally everyone. Mr red, is going to come after us all. He sent, pausing as he winced guiltily. Which is definitely my fault, and I'm sorry... He added quickly, glancing around the hall before quickly typing up a new message. But, I think we can all agree that we need to find a way to stop him. I'm going to the library tonight, to get to the bottom of this. To find some way to stop, banish or kill him. He texted quickly, his fiery determination dimming slightly as he bit his lip nervously. Can I count on you? He asked, his heart swelling with gratitude when the first response was almost immediate.

I'll be there. Rebecca messaged, as Taylor sighed in relief, uncertain what he would have done if none of them had replied.

You don't have cheer practice or something? Raj asked, and Taylor looked up to where his friend stood nearby, rolling his eyes at his deliberate needling.

Duh, of course I do. Rebecca replied, as Taylor sighed at their bickering. But, this is more important. Meet you after class! She said, just as the bell rang and Taylor quickly stuffed his phone into his pocket.

Well, three musketeers are better than none. He thought, tipping his head to Raj as they separated and drifted to their own classes. He strolled into first period English a short time later, sitting behind Quinn as Rebecca settled herself beside her, just barely catching the end of her greeting.

"Hey, did ya get Taylors text?" She asked, frowning when Quinn began to fidget guiltily.

"Yeah... And, I wanna go! But, um..." She hedged, turning to look at Taylor with imploring eyes. "Michelle and I are supposed to go look at homecoming dresses tonight!" She gushed, as Taylor nodded faintly and forced a smile to his lips.

"Hey, no worries beautiful. Enjoy." He said, clearing his throat as he began to gather his things from his bag and set them on his desk.

"Taylor-" Quinn began, only for Rebecca to speak over her.

"Quinn, Michelle is-" she said, just as the blonde herself walks into the class.

"Ooh, my ears are burning." She sneered, sliding up to Quinn's table with a packet of gummy bears. "Morning, Quinn! Here... I saved you all the green ones, 'cause I know they're your favourite."

"Thanks... Meech!" Quinn said awkwardly, though she couldn't help smiling brightly at the blonde, her cheeks staining pink as she bit her lip.

"Oh my god, you are just so adorable..." Michelle giggled, as she bopped her nose gently. The pair laughed quietly, as Taylor feigned gagging noises behind Quinn, though he sobered when he caught sight of the look in Michelle's eyes, as she locked her gaze with Rebecca.

"Good morning, Becca." She said formally, her smile twisting slightly in her effort to remain civil. "Would you like a gummy bear?"

"Hard pass." Rebecca replied, scowling at the blonde in obvious irritation. "Also, we need to talk." She said, standing from her chair and yanking her to the other side of the classroom.

Taylor looked after them worriedly, his gut churning as he tried to keep himself in his seat. "Do you think everything's alright?" Quinn asked quietly, glancing between Taylor and where Rebecca was talking with Michelle.

"Uh... Judging by the scary faces alone? I would say its unlikely..." He hedged, slipping from his chair with Quinn, the pair approaching tentatively to lean against a nearby desk and pretend they were talking, just managing catch the tail end of the conversation.

"... is you." Rebecca whispered furiously, her scowl of frustration locked onto Michelle. "I don't know what kind of game ya playin', but ya better listen to me right now; leave Quinn out of it! She deserves better than-"

Michelle rolled her eyes, holding up a hand and flapping it open and closed like a mouth. "'If you hurt her, I swear to god,' blah blah blah." She sighed, folding her arms over her chest as she glared at Rebecca. "Look, I already did this whole lame routine with Taylor, so can we skip the threats?"

"I don't need to threaten ya, remember?" Rebecca scoffed, as Quinn frowned at Taylor questioningly, who shrugged guiltily in return. "Not when I have ya phone."

"Wow, Becca..." Michelle huffed, narrowing her eyes as she tossed her hair over her shoulder. "Its a shame you're not as good at cheerleading as you are blackmail."

"At least I didn't get it, by secretly filmin' a so-called friend." Rebecca shot back, shaking her head as her angry expression melted into genuine concern. "Now, why are you suddenly so intent on Quinn? What is it you're tryin' to pull, exactly?"

"Is it so unbelievable that I might just actually have feelings for her?" Michelle demanded furiously, and Taylor squeezed Quinn's hand with a small grin, as her cheeks flared red.

"Honestly?" Rebecca asked, raising her brows as her gaze flickered over Michelle. "Yeah... Ya ain't done a single thing for anyone, that don't somehow benefit you, ever since Sean told you he needed some space for awhile. To be honest... ya kinda a monster." She said quietly, blinking as Michelle's face contorted with rage.

"You can't talk to me like-" she began, though Taylor was distracted by the loud buzzing of his phone in his pocket.

"Hold that thought." Rebecca said, reaching for her own phone at the same time as Quinn, as Taylors heart lurched in sudden dread.

"Becca-" he called, too late to stop her from pulling her phone from her pocket. They jumped as audio blasted from the speakers, a familiar voice playing from the screen.

"I hate my life!" Taylors heart stopped, at the devastated sound of his friends tearful voice, glancing around the room as Rebecca's face drained of blood. "Everyone thinks we're this perfect family because that's what Mayor Mom needs us to be... but it's all fake!" Rebecca's voice from the speakers cracked, her despair obvious as she continued to cry and rant. "Mom and Dad hate each other. They're both having affairs, and they don't even try to hide it from me!"

"What the hell?!" Rebecca cried, mashing the power button repeatedly, before slamming her thumb down as hard as she could. But her phone would not turn off, and all around, students began to stare, while others reached for their phones.

"Becca, calm down... Think-" Taylor tried to reason, stepping forward too late as Rebecca panicked and hurled her phone to the ground, where the case exploded into shrapnel; but the speaker continued to play, even louder than before.

"Shut up, shut up, shut up!" Rebecca chanted, stomping her foot onto the pieces frantically in am attempt to mash the speaker and prevent its from sharing her darkest secrets.

"Um, oh my god?" Michelle laughed, as students all throughout the room began to pull out their phones. Taylor wrapped his arms around Rebecca, who hid her face in his shoulder, as he looked around to see screens light up one by one. Speakers blared in chorus, as the announcement system screeched overhead.

"I hate my life! Everyone thinks we're this perfect little family..."

"This shouldn't be possible..." Rebecca mumbled onto Taylors shoulder, as Quinn joined them and tried to comfort her friend. "Unless..."

"It's him." Taylor said, swallowing heavily as the students around them began to point and whisper. "Quinn, grab mine and Becca's bag for us quick... I need to get her out of here." He murmured, and the redhead nodded before quickly rushing to gather their things.

"Taylor... I think I'm gonna be sick..." Rebecca muttered, her hands curling into his top like they were the only thing holding ger upright. "Taylor..." She whispered, as he gently shushed her and tried to block as much of the class from her sight as possible.

"Shh, its okay. Just breathe... We're gonna head out in a sec, okay. Quinn's just getting our bags, and then we're gonna blow the day off, right?" He said reassuringly, stroking her back slowly and glancing at Quinn as she approached them with their things.

"Ooohhh my god," Michelle gasped, staring at Rebecca's distraught form with obvious glee. "This is too good."

"Michelle, what the hell?!" Quinn demanded, startling them all as she scowled at the blonde and passed Taylor his bag. "Can't you see she's upset? How can you stand there and-" she trailed off, shaking her head in obvious disgust as she swallowed and blinked back tears.

"I... I'm sorry!" Michelle stammered, as Quinn shook her head slowly and turned away from her, trying to pry Rebecca's face from Taylors shoulder to catch her eye.

"Becca... are you okay?" She asked gently, her hand squeezing Rebecca's shoulder gently. "What is that-?"

"Over... its over... all over." Rebecca muttered, as Taylor met Quinn's worried gaze over Rebecca's lowered head.

"What's over..?" She asked, turning her attention back to Rebecca as she raised her head just enough to look at Quinn with a hollow expression.

"My life!" She whispered, obviously in agony as she clutched tighter to Taylors shoulder as her chest hitched with a sob.

"C'mon, gorgeous. Lets get you outta here now." Taylor said firmly, steering her toward the door. Michelle remained in their way, staring at Quinn in shock as she moved with them.

"Quinn, wha-" she began, reaching for the redhead and frowning as she jerked herself away from the blondes touch.

"You did this." Quinn said brokenly, swallowing thickly as she shook her head. "You made that recording to blackmail my friend, you tormented her and you... you enjoyed it." She said, choking as she brushed past the blonde with Taylor, Rebecca carefully embraced between them. She paused at the doorway, her eyes glistening with tears as she looked back. "... They were right about you." She whispered, before turning away and hurrying after Taylor and Rebecca.

"Quinn-" Taylor said, but the redhead merely shook her head at him, scrubbing at her eyes roughly.

"Just... don't worry about me. We need to get her away from here." She said, sniffing as she grabbed Rebecca's keys from her bag.

"... Can you drive her back to mine? Nobody will bother her there-" Taylor said, breaking off suddenly when his phone chimed. He dug it from his pocket to see a new message from Raj in the group chat. Anyone else's phone acting weird, dudes? The large boy asked, as Taylor drew in a deep breath and tried to calm his racing heart. This video of Rebecca just started auto-playing at full volume.

I got it too. Sean messaged quickly, as Taylor and Quinn hurried down the hall towards the exit. And I'm pretty sure I just saw her with Taylor and Quinn, out in the hall. What's going on?

It was Mr. Red... Has to be. Taylor replied, scowling as he glanced at Quinn briefly. He clenched his jaw and held the door open, as Quinn led their friend through to a stairwell. Somehow he got hold of that video and sent it to everyone... We are taking Becca to my house, anyone who wants to come, meet up at Becca's car in ten. He sent the text message, then hesitated for a moment, before quickly typing out another. I think we oughtta watch each others backs today. Something tells me he's not done yet...

Speaking of, anyone seen Zahra? Sean asked, and Taylor frowned as he thought back over the morning, realising that he hadn't seen his friend that day at all. Also, I can be with you guys in five.

I haven't seen her... Taylor admitted, his concern growing in light of Rebecca's classroom incident. You think... something happened?

Cease you're hypochondriac theories, Zahra is by her locker. Glaring at it, in truth. Aleister's message chimed into the group, though Taylor couldn't decide if he was relieved or more concerned by the vaguely ominous tone.

Have you asked her what's wrong? Taylor sent back, biting his lip worriedly as he trotted down the stairs with Quinn and Rebecca.

I am neither an imbecile nor suicidal, Taylor. Aleister replied, and Taylor rolled his eyes, as he imagined his friends irritated scowl. Zahra currently bears an expression which inplies she would be more likely to maul anyone who approaches, as opposed to speak with them.

On our way. Taylor shot back, shaking his head as he held the lower stairs door open for Quinn. "We gotta pass by my locker, Zahra's down there, with Aleister, by the sounds of it." He said, and Quinn nodded quickly, as she turned left down the hall. After a tense minute of hurrying down the hall, Taylors locker came into view, with Zahra glaring at her own beside it. He glanced at Aleister, a short ways down the hall, leaning against his own locker as he watched Zahra.

"Welp." Zahra said, moving aside to reveal that she had in fact been glaring at something on her locker. Taylor flinched at the blood red words, spelling out the word 'witch,' which were scrawled across her locker, shuddering as Zahra began to yell up and down the hall. "Just so you know, assholes; whoever actually did this? Your handwriting sucks!" She called, ripping open the door with a snarl, as Aleister sighed and shook his head.

"I take it things are rapidly descending into chaos?" He called, pushing away from his locker as if about to approach, when he instead merely stood straighter, raising a brow at the sound of footfalls behind them.

"Quinn! Quinn, wait!" Michelle called, her eyes wide and imploring as she stared at Quinn, who shook her head and turned away from the blonde.

"I'm helping my friend." She said, uncharacteristically stiffly. For a moment, nothing more was said, until finally she glanced back at Michelle in obvious hurt and confusion. "... How could you be so cruel?"

"It just slipped out!" Michelle said defensively, though she shifted her weight guiltily from one foot to the other, averting her eyes from Quinn's disappointed gaze.

"You were standing there, laughing! Taunting her." Quinn said, swallowing heavily as she shook her head slowly. "And you made that recording, for exactly that reason... To make her feel this awful. To hurt her this badly-"

"Please... I'm trying to be better!" Michelle promised, biting her lip as she took a step closer. But you know, I've been having