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so you think (that being alone's the only way to be)

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When Erica wakes up in the woods with no memory of having left her bedroom, it's a sign of how freaking weird her life is getting that she's less surprised by the taste of stale blood on her teeth and more surprised to discover that she's still fully dressed.

*

"So I'm not saying that your werewolf theory has any merit," she tells Allison later, dropping onto the bench beside her and stealing a sip from her thermos. "But if it is true, why haven't I been shredding my own clothes all slutty-hot? You always get to see sudden boobs in the movies, right?"

"Your tits don't need the help," Allison says, twinkling at her. "Like, who are you talking to?"

Erica's gaze drops to evaluate Allison's tits, and Allison is totally the Hot One in their group of two, but that is a fair point. "Your clothes would be shredded across your stomach," she decides. "Or maybe across your ass. I bet your jeans would suddenly be hot pants!"

"So what's happening here?" Allison asks. "Why are you complaining about the lack of inexplicable nudity in your life?"

"I'm not complaining!" Erica protests. "I'm just saying, if I am a werewolf, I feel like Hollywood should have better prepared me for it. Or maybe some kind of specialized guidance counselor. A girl needs somebody to help her out, is what I'm saying."

Allison sips from her thermos the way she always does when she needs time to think, time to figure out what to say when Erica asks, Do you think Stiles is ever going to notice me? or maybe, You're totally better at lacrosse than this, right? Her eyes are still on Lydia Martin, running through free shots while the Coach critiques her form, when she responds, lightly, "I thought we didn't believe in werewolves?"

Erica shakes her head helplessly, watching the strong arc and blur of Lydia's arm because Allison won't meet her eyes. She thinks about the taste of blood in her mouth, thinks about the difference between the ghost of blood ringing an alarm, the surge of her own blood as she bites into her tongue, and the dried blood of an animal coating her teeth because she's torn its flesh apart with her hands and mouth. It's been a while since she's had a seizure, but that isn't offering her much comfort right now.

"Remember when you said we'd know for sure if I woke up with Thumper-fluff in my mouth?"

"You ate a rabbit," Allison says, voice supportively flat, and takes a swig from her thermos as if that coffee is Irish. "My dad hunts. It's totally normal--"

"I woke up beside a half-eaten deer," Erica interrupts. "I'm pretty sure werewolf is the better option for me at this point."

Allison hands the thermos over and lets Erica knock back the last of her coffee because she's awesome like that. It doesn't help, but the consideration warms Erica more than the drink.

"Werewolves aren't real, though," Allison says, eyes on the field, where nothing is happening. "I was joking."

Erica swallows, though her mouth is empty. "I suppose schizophrenic epileptic is more likely than--"

"You're not schizophrenic." The reassurance comes quickly, but Allison's eyes are worried.

Erica's the one who can't meet her gaze now. "McCall is staring at you again," she says.

"Erica--" Allison says helplessly.

"It's fine."

"Did you go home? Was your mom-- You should call me next time."

"I didn't have my phone."

Allison's worry grows, and Erica knows she's about to suggest that Erica come stay with her and her dad for a while, like Erica doesn't know how to survive alone, like Erica doesn't know how to look after herself better than anybody else could by now, even if it doesn't always seem to work out that way. Erica is almost glad when the Coach hollers over before Allison can speak.

"Argent, you're up!"

Allison gets to her feet, but she stays where she is, staring at Erica in frustration until the coach jogs over.

"Reyes!" he says, surprise and hearty pleasure in his voice, as if he's only noticing that she's here. Some days, he doesn't notice at all. "Why don't we get you to do a lap." Erica stands, pleased to be off the bench, even if it's only practice. "I've been noticing much less wheezing and struggling to escape death lately! It's been a big improvement!"

"Thanks," Erica mutters, taking off on her pity jog. "But I don't wheeze. McCall's the asthmatic."

"You've lost weight!" Coach Finstock calls approvingly after her, and then, crestfallen as Allison cuts him off at the knees or maybe just raises an eyebrow, "No? Bad?"

"Not good," Allison tells him, ruefully amused.

Erica keeps her eyes on the distant treeline, and when she's run the length of the field she considers pressing on, as far as those trees, further, further than she has ever been. A whistle blows behind her; she stumbles, and rubs at her ears, annoyed at the unusually loud screech. Coach is pretty enthusiastic with that thing, but she's pretty sure that eagerness can't actually amplify sound. She remembers that her grandmother used to get migraines, and her fingers drift uncertainly to her temples. She feels fine.

She corners, finishes her lap, and starts another. She isn't even winded. She has lost weight, although if she were to believe Coach's usual spiel, weight doesn't have all that much to do with cardiovascular--

A body flies through the air and slams into her, bowling her to the ground.

"McCall!" she yells.

Her shout attracts attention, and Allison detaches from the group, loping towards her. The coach jogs over too, but only because he's following Allison.

"Sorry!" Scott says fervently, a scrambling, clumsy weight on top of her. "Sorry, sorry!"

"Erica?" Allison calls. "Are you okay?"

"Get off!" Erica snaps, trying not to see Lydia Martin in the corner of her eye, staring at the spectacle, impatient disdain in every line of her body. Scott's friends are speeding towards them from the opposite direction, because obviously what Erica needs is every boy in the place to witness this, particularly if one of those boys is Stiles. Her irritation bleeds into panicky anger as the group converges on her, and she shoves Scott hard with one hand, her other hand and both feet working uselessly against the ground.

She's on her feet glaring down at Scott's sprawled form before she's aware of the removal of his body, of the sudden release of the pressure holding her down.

"Oh--" Allison says quietly, a note of surprise in her voice.

Erica should reassure Allison, she knows, but her blood is up and her body is clamoring, and she's thinking about kicking Scott in the ribs, thinking about bolting for the cover of those trees. She doesn't know which to do.

"You're strong," Scott says, blinking up at her from the place she'd thrown him. "Why don't you use that? I'd use that, if I were that strong. I wouldn't be sitting on a bench."

"McCall!" Coach Finstock barks, catching up. The impulses driving Erica to act fade beneath his authoritative tone. "No stealing the girls' time! If you want more attention, violence is not the answer! Winning is! If you want use of the field, just stop sucking, the way the girls did when somebody introduced Martin to George! This is a meritocracy! That's why now you're coming with me and Reyes to the nurse's office! So that I can yell at you on the way! Because you deserve it!"

Scott's friends reach them, and Stiles tumbles over Scott's outstretched legs, catching himself on Scott's shoulder. He's unfairly cute as he wriggles around and manages to extract himself so that he can crouch on the ground beside Scott. The despair and loathing that surge in Erica at the sight of him are far more certain than her anger had been.

"Hey, buddy," he says, worried. "How you doing down there?"

"I think I twisted my ankle when Erica bucked me off," Scott offers. "I might need to strap it."

"What are you talking about?" Coach Finstock asks, baffled.

Vernon Boyd wanders up, eyes moving slowly from Scott to Erica. It isn't as if she wants more people here, but Vernon's presence never bothers her. He's probably the best witness she could have hoped for, quiet and unremarkable.

"I've seen that on Grey's Anatomy," Stiles says. "I can totally do that."

"Plus I think my chest is bruised. And maybe I lost my inhaler--" Scott is checking his pockets, but the inhaler is on the grass beside his hoodie. Erica gestures at it, flushing as everyone's eyes follow the movement of her hand.

"He needs air, not warmth," Stiles says. "He's not in shock. I don't want to have to give you mouth to mouth again, bro."

"It's beside his hoodie," Erica forces out, miserable at having to explain herself, at looking stupid in front of all these people, Stiles and Boyd and stupid Lydia most of all. Erica knows Lydia is getting all of this.

"You never had to do that," Scott protests, scowling at Stiles, getting worked up for the first time. "That never happened! That isn't happening!"

He keeps glancing at Allison, but she isn't paying attention. Neither is Boyd; he's hovering just behind Stiles, staring over at Scott's hoodie, crumpled where he'd dropped it on the ground. The inhaler had probably rolled out of a pocket. Scott's mom is a nurse, but inhalers are still expensive; he should take better care.

"That isn't happening because this time I will find your inhaler!" Stiles declares, jumping to his feet, looking around wildly. "This time the inhaler will be the hero!"

"You had just jumped on my stomach!" Scott protests. "I was out of breath! I didn't need mouth to mouth! You weren't a hero!"

"Mouth to mouth is cool between bros," Coach Finstock says earnestly. "Proven life-saving, life-guarding techniques are always bro-down, like, like lifeguards! Lifeguards are total bros. Fact."

Allison frowns. "Lifeguards can be female."

"So maybe not a technical fact," Coach Finstock allows. "But still true! And if the mouth on mouth time isn't technically bro-time, that's cool too! Man on man time is totally cool, you can do that, I encourage it, even, I mean, not encourage, that sort of thing is not appropriate on school grounds or to be undertaken at the behest of--school--representatives--but-- You can talk to me! You can talk to me about what's going down in your lives, or who's going down, or-- Do you want to talk to me about the mouths on mouths, guys?"

There's silence while Coach Finstock gazes around in a creepily sincere fashion, and then Stiles says, with horrified brightness, "Nobody wants to talk to you, Coach."

"Good!" Coach Finstock says chirpily. "Good talk! Progress made!" He claps Stiles on the shoulder as Stiles tries to turn his grimace into a smile.

"Did you have your inhaler in your hoodie, Scott?" Allison asks. "Maybe you dropped it over there."

Because Allison speaks, Scott listens, glancing over at the hoodie and saying, "Oh, yeah, yeah, Stiles--"

Stiles takes off running, and it's only when it takes him such a long time to retrieve the inhaler that Erica realizes how very far away that hoodie had been dropped.

"I'm finishing my lap," Erica mutters, moving away quickly, easily, as Stiles surfaces with the inhaler held triumphantly aloft.

"Impressively undamaged, Reyes!" Coach yells. "Keep not dying! I am authorized to encourage that!"

Erica will attempt to keep not dying, but for the moment, she just keeps running, and she pretends it doesn't bother her when Allison returns to battling Lydia for possession and doesn't call her back.

*

Erica's mom took off in her car, so Erica has been catching the school bus for the last couple weeks. She lives on the same route as Boyd, but he never talks to her, not even that time they barely made it to the last bus after practice ran stupidly late and they'd both had to squeeze into the tiny front seat.

So it's a surprise when he swings up the steps after her and drops into the seat across the aisle, spreading out so that nobody can sit beside him and looking directly at her. She glances out the window, turning her head warily away.

"Hey," he says.

She can't ignore him, but she doesn't exactly know what to say, either.

"Hey," she responds awkwardly.

"How are you feeling?" he asks. "You wiped out pretty hard."

"No, it was cool," she says. "I'm fine." She hesitates, and adds, "Thanks," glancing briefly over at him.

He looks concerned. It's nice. She turns her face quickly back to the window.

"You sure?" The bus is filling up, and Boyd picks up his bag and switches seats so that he can keep talking to her. "I thought you hit your head."

"I don't think so."

"You should get that checked out," he says. "Just to be sure."

He's looking at her hair like he wants to part it and check for bumps, but he doesn't make any move to touch her.

"I'm really fine," she says, wishing she sounded less shy, wishing she were able to hide the smile tugging at her lips. "Hey, I play with Lydia Martin. She bounces me like that when I forget to bring her sugar-and-lactose-free hot chocolate. McCall's a lightweight."

"He isn't very threatening," Boyd agrees. He's looking at her closely, puzzling over her face, eyes sweeping her body. She bites her lip and wills the flush away, though she knows from experience that never works. "But he runs with a bad crowd. You should be careful, if--"

He cuts himself off even before she rounds on him, enraged.

"Bad crowd?" she asks sharply. "Who are you calling a bad crowd."

His eyebrows go up in surprise.

"McCall is close to Stiles, and Stiles--"

"Stiles is not a bad crowd," she says fiercely.

The surprise only lasts a moment more, and then his face goes sad. "Stiles doesn't have very good judgment, that's all," he says quietly.

"He--"

She can't argue the point when Boyd is looking at her like that, but she can't admit he's right, either. She doesn't want to admit anything to Boyd, because Boyd isn't her friend, and he has no right to be looking at her like he knows.

"You don't know him," she says angrily. "You haven't been here long enough to know anybody."

Boyd is the one to turn his head away this time, focus turning inward, shields that keep the whole world at bay hiding him away. She instantly feels sorry for making him look like that, and then he says, distant and determined, "You don't know him either."

"I'm going to walk," she snaps, and shoves past him, shaking.

The driver barely waits until she's all the way off before pulling away, and then she's standing alone in the lot, doing her own fuming as she inhales exhaust.

"Asshole," she says, though she doesn't even know who she's mad at. Definitely Boyd, but maybe other people too. "Fucking asshole. Shit."

There's a rumbling laugh beside her, and when she spins around there's a guy in a leather jacket leaning on a car she thinks is probably impressive to people who care about that sort of thing. He's attractive, she supposes, in that sub-par Byronic way dumb girls with ideas seem to like, blank-faced and brooding. Erica's taste is better than that.

"Are you laughing at me?" she asks, annoyed, though nothing seems less likely than this guy's sour face ever cracking a smile.

"Yes," he says seriously, and she glares.

She wants to tell him not to laugh at her, but her nerve fails, even the frustrated anger bubbling in her stomach not lending her guts enough to let him have it.

"Who are you?" she asks, annoyed. She thinks he looks familiar, but she can't place him. He looks older than she is, though, old enough that they wouldn't have run in the same circles even if his looks and manner didn't squelch the possibility of his deigning to know her. He looks too old to be permitted on school grounds.

"I'm Derek," he says. "Do you need a ride home?"

When she looks at him properly, startled, she sees that she has his full attention; he is observing her closely and intently, almost studying her. She isn't comfortable with the attention, isn't used to it at all. Her eyes dart nervously to the corner of the lot where the security guard stands with his red face and hunched shoulders. He's speaking angrily into his phone, something about refusing to let his wife get away with his television, but at least he's there.

"No," she snaps, and lifts her chin, drops it, and forces it up firmly. This guy is kind of tall. "And what are you doing here? How old are you? Because I'm pretty sure you're too old to be on school property sleazing after high school girls, and if you don't leave me alone I'm going to call the Sheriff's Department."

His face snaps into a frown at the threat, but smooths out immediately. "I'm not sleazing after you," he says flatly.

Her mouth is open to argue when someone barrels into her from behind. Her reflexes kick in quicker than they had on the field, defenses already up, and she braces herself and bounces her assailant off. When she spins around her mouth is still open, ready to yell this time, but it clicks shut when she sees Stiles.

"Sorry, sorry," he apologizes, breathless and distracted, and then his face lights up.

"Stiles," she starts, but he speaks over her shy, "Hi," saying, "Derek!" with more pleasure than she has ever heard his voice contain.

Her stupid heart sinks.

"Stiles," Derek acknowledges, straightening out of his slouch against the car. "You ready?"

"Yeah," Stiles says eagerly. "But Scott couldn't come, he's, uh--" Stiles' eyes cut towards Erica as he hesitates, and then says, "Elsewhere. He's busy elsewhere." Her heart doesn't sing the way it should at the attention from Stiles: it sinks instead.

It sinks because she sees Derek smile the way she hadn't imagined him capable of, at Stiles, at the lack of Scott, and she realizes it isn't her he's sleazing all over at all.

Which would be fine if Stiles weren't smiling brightly back at him, checking out the car and raising an eyebrow that insinuates something unflattering about Derek's manhood and still somehow grinning like Derek has just brought him a bunch of flowers or offered to let Stiles share his suite at fucking Comic-Con or something.

"That's fine," Derek says easily. "You don't need him here, right?"

"No!" Stiles scoffs, and takes a step away from Erica towards Derek. "No," he repeats, wariness creeping into his voice as the glint of that smile grows brighter.

"Unless you wanted your friend to join us," Derek suggests. "I already offered her a ride, but I think she might need more convincing than you did."

"Uh--" Stiles says, attention returning to Erica. He's clearly unwilling to let her tag along.

"I'm good," she says defiantly. "You two have fun."

She doesn't mean it, but she speeds away from them across the empty lot before the lump in her throat can make her voice quaver or her lip wobble, before they can see any of her hurt on her face.

Desperation drives her: she keeps running, runs all the way home, hits the side of the house hard before she can put the brakes on, and realizes, with a distant shock she's becoming inured to, that it might have taken longer in that car.

*

The next morning, Boyd slips silently into the seat next to her; she shoots him an annoyed look and ignores him all the way into school, but it warms something in her that he even bothers.

Stiles' jeep skids into an empty spot further away from the entrance as Erica disembarks, and she tries not to watch as Stiles and Scott come tumbling out, Stiles falling all over Scott as he jabbers away in his friend's ear. Yesterday she would have wondered what they were talking about; now she wonders whether she wants to know.

Before she can decide, Boyd's hand is on her shoulder propelling her forwards, though when she stops dead to glare at him he's looking over his own shoulder instead of at her.

That just ruffles her feathers until he says, "Hey, man, back off," and shakes Matt Daehler away. Boyd is glaring at Matt and Matt is staring at her, and nothing about this makes sense, because Boyd isn't her friend and she would've sworn Matt didn't even know she was alive.

Boyd is still pressing her towards the steps, but she's irritated enough to stand her ground and shrug his hand off.

"Hey," he says, blocking Matt from view with his obscenely broad chest.

"You'd be good in a werewolf movie," Erica says suddenly, amused pleasure overtaking her shyness.

"What?" Boyd asks blankly.

"You wouldn't need to grow at all," she says, and she doesn't think she manages to keep all her uncertainty out of her smile, but it startles her with its wideness, and with how much she means it.

"Right," Boyd replies, baffled, and gestures at the doors, so she turns her back on him and leads the way up the steps, and doesn't speak to him again before splitting for her locker.

*

"Matt's kind of cute, though, right?" Allison says later, when Erica is watching Lydia beat the crap out of Gina under guise of demonstrating her skill at offense.

"Huh?" Erica asks intelligently.

"I mean, I guess. Do you like Boyd better?"

"Uh--"

"I'm not sure strong and silent is my type."

She grins in a manner Erica recognizes as deeply suspicious.

"Why does it matter if Boyd and Matt are cute?" she asks, "And how do you know what your type is?"

"Because they're into you, duh," Allison says in what is a blatant attempt to avoid answering Erica's question about her own love life, like that is going to fly with her--

"What do you mean, into me?" Erica yelps. "Nobody is into me!"

Allison rolls her eyes. "Half the school have to pick their tongues off the floor every time you walk by. Have you even seen yourself lately?"

Erica gapes.

"Not that you weren't always hot," Allison corrects hastily, flustered. "But people have started to notice."

"Please," Lydia Martin says disdainfully, dropping onto the bench on the other side of Allison and leaning forward to grace Erica with a dismissive smile. "You turned into the after photo in a Proactiv commercial overnight. Don't pretend you haven't noticed. It's just a shame you're as profoundly bland as the rest of those spokesmodels. You might be very attractive otherwise."

Erica gapes.

"Thanks," Allison says brightly. "It's so nice of you to comment on how awesome she looks."

Lydia smiles tightly at Allison. They're something like friends, sometimes, when Allison isn't too caught up trying to minimize the slime left behind by whatever crap Erica is floating through and Lydia isn't too wound up in her own insecurities to allow someone like Allison into her orbit. Erica tries not to be threatened by that; occasionally she even kind of succeeds.

"Can't be that awesome if stalker Matt is the best she can do," Lydia snaps.

"Jackson hasn't been sniffing," Allison says sharply. "Get lost."

Lydia huffs, and flounces back over to poor Gina.

"Jackson Whittemore doesn't know who I am," Erica says shrilly, because even if Jackson isn't willing to put in the effort necessary to stay on first line of a losing team, he still drives that car and looks like that and--and dates Lydia Martin. He doesn't know who she is.

"He totally does," Allison says flatly. "Everyone does."

"Not," Erica says uncertainly, because she had thought that about Matt, too, and-- "Is Matt a stalker?" she asks, alarmed.

"No," Allison says, voice sliding up the scale on the syllable to express the ridiculousness of the idea. "I mean, not really. He's just Matt. You know."

Erica doesn't.

But when she sees Matt hanging around the front of the school when she's on her way out to the bus after practice she ducks around the corner to avoid him and jogs home instead.

She checks her phone when she gets to her front door, twisting her key in the lock and swinging inside; she's earlier than usual, even though she hadn't sprinted or rushed or pushed herself at all, so she pushes herself now, speeding into the kitchen to see if she can grab a glass of water without slowing down or spilling it, but she doesn't get the chance to try: instead she shrieks when she can't stop moving before she slams into Derek, standing beside her kitchen sink.

"What the hell!" she yelps, not even trying to hide how freaked out she is. He had caught her elbows, preventing her fall, but she pulls free and punches him hard in the arm. He smiles politely, unmoved. "Who the hell are you? How did you even get in here? Why did Allison tell me that Matt was the stalker!"

Derek frowns. "Who is Matt?" he asks suspiciously.

"Who are you?" Erica demands. And then she looks around, wavering between hope and suspicion. "Where's Stiles?"

"Not here," Derek says, amused.

"Why not?" Erica asks shrilly. "What are you going to do that you don't want him to see?"

"I just want to talk to you," Derek says, smiling wide at her the way he had at Stiles, turning it on. It doesn't do anything to reassure her, because guys don't do that at her. Derek is freaking her out. "Relax."

The smile grows; she takes a wary step backwards.

"Who are you?" she asks again.

"Derek Hale," he says shortly, the smile abruptly turning to a glare when it becomes apparent the honey isn't attracting her.

She recognizes the name, and she knows the story, and she wonders--what is he doing back in town and why had he left to begin with and how had that fire actually started and why is he here, why is he here, why is he--

She backs away slowly, and hopes he won't notice.

"Who did this to you?" he asks abruptly.

She freezes.

"Did what?" she asks breathlessly.

"Who turned you?"

"Who--" Her blood feels like ice in her veins; her breath feels like fire in her lungs. "Who turned me into what?"

The stiff glare vanishes, face melting into something uncomfortably like pity, close and familiar enough to make her angry, she thinks, though she can't feel much of anything through the distance as she waits, frozen by the possibility.

"You don't know?" he asks. The anger is gone, and his voice is swift and practical when he tells her, "You're a werewolf."

She had known that.

"Yeah," she says after a moment, on a gasp of breath. "I figured."

She had known, mostly, though she hadn't thought--she had hoped. She had hoped she wasn't crazy.

"Oh," she says, wonderingly. "Oh."

"Who made you?"

"Nobody," she says. "I don't--"

"Somebody," Derek says, anger threading him again. "And you need to know who."

"Why?" she asks. She isn't sure she'll remember any of this later, beyond the bones of it, beyond the only thing that matters: werewolf.

She is a werewolf.

"I need to know who," he corrects. "You're too much of a baby to matter."

She feels the rub of that, the urge to prove him wrong, but she looks at him standing there in her kitchen, gauges the height and breadth of him as he towers over her in the place she is supposed to be safe, and doesn't even attempt to challenge him.

"I don't know," she says, hearing the weakness in her voice and hating it. Hating herself for it. "I don't know what happened to me!"

"I don't care what happened to you," he says. "But we'll figure out who did."

She resents the dismissal, the casual arrogance and the assumption of authority, resents everything about him; she nods jerkily anyway.

And then his head twitches upwards, and he stares towards the front of her house, face darkening.

Hope rises unchecked in her breast, though there's nobody coming, nobody. Allison is at home; her mother--

Nobody is coming.

"I'll find you," he growls, and disappears out the kitchen window.

She stares after him in astonishment, and then his head pops back in. She manages to swallow the shriek into a muffled meep this time.

"What!"

"Don't tell him I was here," he instructs curtly.

"Stiles?" she asks, confused. "Maybe you shouldn't be here then!"

Derek glares, but it's losing effectiveness remarkably quickly if she chooses to disregard the fact that he's mostly on the other side of a wall.

"Vernon Boyd," he says irritably. "You don't know me."

"I wish I didn't," she snaps back. "Boyd doesn't care who was here. He barely even knows me. He isn't going to ask who I saw tomorrow."

The doorbell rings, and Derek's eyebrow rises.

Erica's eyes narrow. "You're gay," she says sweetly, drawing herself up, taking a deep breath. "I don't think Boyd would care unless you wanted to join in, and I'd probably have to mention that to Stiles."

Derek glowers at her as he vanishes.

Erica glowers at the dying pansies in the windowbox that tremble in his wake and triple-checks the window is locked before going to answer the door.

"Hi, Boyd," she says. "What are you doing here?"

There's a different tenor to the question when the person hasn't broken into your kitchen.

"Missed you on the bus," he says simply, and Erica immediately and unexpectedly wants to burst into tears.

Instead, she steps back and gestures him inside with the tilt of her head. She regrets it immediately.

He looks around the living room with the sloppily-painted walls and the battered couch and the tiny television, and she doesn't want to know what it is he's seeing, or what he thinks of it or her.

"My mom's away," she says, staring past his shoulder. "It's not usually this messy."

"My mom doesn't clean," he says after a second, "you're lucky."

"Yeah," she agrees, though it takes an effort. "I am."

She tries to match Boyd's smile, but she isn't sure she manages it.

"You okay?" he asks.

"Fine," she says, but she can feel her false brightness cracking under the unexpected strain of somebody actually asking.

"It must be weird to be on your own."

"No." She's grown used to her mother's infrequent disappearances, but she doesn't want to tell him that. She swallows, and says instead, "I can stay with the Argents if I want to."

He smiles, and she thinks it's meant to be reassuring, but it means she has to fill the silence and she has nothing to say.

"Would you like a glass of water?" she offers stiffly.

"Thanks," he says, and then she has to take him into the kitchen and pull a glass from the cupboard, check that it's clean, and pour from the tap.

Besides Allison, Boyd is the first person who has ever come over to her house. His eyes are moving around the room, intent on the old-fashioned windows and the scattered earth on the floor beneath them, the shabby wood of the back door, the single faded cup she'd left on the draining board that morning before she'd left for school. She doesn't know how this is going, or what to do. She hands him the glass, tries not to watch him drink, and winces when he catches her.

"Thanks," he says again, putting the empty glass on the counter while studying her face the way he'd been studying the kitchen.

"Not a problem," she says, warmth creeping into her voice without her permission, because Boyd won't stop looking at her, and she can't help how much she likes it.

"How long has your mom been away for?" he asks curiously.

"Not that long," she says, and feels the sly flirtation sliding into her face even before she adds, "I can look after myself, you don't have to worry."

"Good to know," he says. He's amused; the corners of his eyes crinkle, and then his teeth flash white in his face, startling her into reciprocating. "But you shouldn't have to."

Her happiness fades. "She hasn't been away that long."

It's a lie. Erica doesn't tell Allison every time her mom drops off the grid anymore, because she can't stand seeing that look on her friend's face. She has no intention of seeing it on Boyd's.

"You shouldn't have to be alone," he says, still watching her face. She doesn't want to have this conversation at all, and she really doesn't want to have it under this level of scrutiny, when anything she's thinking or feeling might spill right out, getting all over somebody who would actually notice the mess.

She takes a deep breath and lifts her chin. "I'm fine," she says defiantly, and then, projecting enough strength that she's almost sure she doesn't sound pathetic, "I'm used to it."

Boyd makes a sound low in his throat, drawing her gaze to the strong line of his neck, and then asks abruptly, "Where's your dad?"

She doesn't flinch; it feels like a victory. "In Arizona." She forgets sometimes how new Boyd is, and that he'd missed all the ugliness of her parents' divorce. "We don't speak much."

Something must be showing on her face anyway, because Boyd hesitates, cutting himself off before asking, "You can't stay with him?"

She shrugs. "Don't know," she says, trying for flippancy.

"Oh," Boyd says, blinking. His face is calm, but something is flickering behind his eyes.

Erica is very sure she doesn't want to know what it is, but she can't help telling him, "My stepmother doesn't like me. Can't blame her, I guess."

She doesn't blame Julie for not liking her, because the first time Erica's mom had ditched out had been when Julie was in labor, and Erica had called her dad in a total panic, and he'd missed the birth of his new kid while he was driving back to California to pick up Erica, on the phone to her mom's parents and the boyfriend's parents and the boyfriend's ex and the boyfriend whose name Erica can no longer remember and, finally, her mom. He'd turned around halfway to Erica when her mom had promised to come back, but Erica can't really blame Julie for holding a grudge.

She's older now, anyway. She doesn't need him.

"Yes, you can," Boyd says.

His certainty startles her, and today, that's saying something.

She laughs, but the sound catches and tears, and she swallows it down, pressing her lips together. Boyd is watching her mouth.

"Well," she says meaninglessly, wondering if he's right. She thinks about the hundred dollars she'd found tucked under the chopping board that morning she'd woken up in an empty house and how quickly she'd blown through it despite her attempts to be frugal. She's living on her birthday money, and she doesn't have much left. She thinks about calling Julie directly; she's pretty sure Julie would send her money if she promised not to bother her father.

"Yeah," Boyd says, and Erica's mouth relaxes gradually, lips parting. Maybe Julie would just call CPS and have her put into foster care; maybe her father wouldn't come this time. Maybe she can just stay with Allison until her mom shows up again, maybe she can just--

She reaches out and touches Boyd before the thought forms, and then she has to suck in air when she feels his skin under her hand, when he looks into her eyes and doesn't back away.

"Yeah," Boyd says again, and it doesn't feel meaningless this time.

His collarbone is pressing against her palm, and she can feel the pulse in his neck under her fingers. She slides her hand up and around the back of his neck until the apex of his spine is nestled into the curve of her palm and her fingers are curled around the side of his neck. She thinks about pressing down, pulling him down to her, looks right back into his eyes and thinks about what he would do.

She tilts her head up, and he lifts his away, steps back. She feels the distance in the stretch of her arm. It's embarrassing.

"Erica," he says, "are you okay?"

She lets her hand drop away from him and steps back herself. "I'm fine," she bites out, angry now. It's a relief to have someone to direct her anger at, to have someone here. "Totally fine."

He steps towards her, now that she isn't reaching out for him, ducks his head to get closer to her and look into her eyes.

"Are you, though?" he asks. The concern is sincere, and it gets under her guard, under her skin, and it makes her anger flare. "Are you really--"

"I'm fine," she snarls, and takes a step back that becomes a stride, and sends her into the wall.

"Okay," he says after a moment, still staring at her. The concern lingers, but there's calculation on his face now too. "You can stay with me, if you need to," he offers. "We have a spare room, and my parents would love to have you."

Erica has seen Arnold Boyd picking his son up from school in that shiny black 4x4 with tinted windows. She knows he has no idea who she is, and she doubts he would be pleased to learn.

"I'm staying with Allison," she says. "I need to leave."

Boyd doesn't move.

"Need a ride? My cousin is waiting outside--"

"I'm fine," she says firmly. It's true, for the first time: she doesn't need a ride anywhere these days.

She walks past Boyd into the living room, grabs her backpack from the couch, and stands there for a minute, waiting for him to follow her, feeling the seconds trickle past. She doesn't have the patience to wait long; when she goes to retrieve him from the kitchen she bumps into him as he tries to exit.

"Erica," he says again, but she draws herself up and refuses to bank her anger. "I need to know if--"

"You need to leave," she says, smiling poisonous and sweet, doing her best Lydia Martin, the same way she's seen other girls do when they want to strike at someone without putting their ruffled feathers on display. "Now."

"Erica," he protests, but he responds to her hand on his back, to the closeness of her body and the annoyance she's blasting his way, and she has him on the doorstep in short order.

He turns to say something, to appeal or apologize or say something else she can't listen to, but she's stepping out behind him and pulling the door closed, so he ends up with his arms around her.

"Uh--" he says.

They stand there for a second, silent in the awkwardness, and there's nowhere to go but forwards, so she moves closer to him, twists in his embrace and out of his arms. He tries to hold onto her, she thinks, but he doesn't call her back when she breaks away.

"I'll see you at school," she says, walks onto the street, and leaves Boyd behind. She passes his cousin, a smaller man than Boyd with a scarier stare, sitting in a muscle car so well cared for she'd bet his girlfriend is jealous.

"See you tomorrow," Boyd calls.

She doesn't acknowledge either of them, just keeps walking, and after a minute the car's engine guns and it roars past her and out of sight, and she can duck into the field that borders one side of her road and cut some time off her journey.

She doesn't notice Derek until she slams into him, sending them both flying into the air and skidding across the ground. Derek takes control and twists in midair, so she loses a few layers of skin in the impact and whimpers helplessly before she wriggles free and puts her boot in his stomach. He barely reacts, though the whole weight of her body is behind the blow, just grabs her ankle and twists until she yanks her foot free and kicks at his hand.

She pulls her leg back, ready to let fly into his stomach, but he catches her foot and growls at her, and she stands there, scared stupid and numb, watching as his face changes, as the bones shatter and distort, as the skin writhes and slides like something is alive and moving underneath it, as Derek's face vanishes and something else takes its place.

When he lets her foot go and gets to his feet, he's moving differently, though his body hasn't changed. He's moving like an animal, like--

She thinks she makes a sound of horror, but she can't be sure. She swings at him weakly, and claws scrape her skin as something she barely recognizes as a hand comes up to block her pathetic attempt at a strike.

"What are you?" she asks. "What--"

Derek doesn't speak, just growls and moves towards her; he's moving like a dog about to attack, like a predator about to rip her apart. She stumbles backwards, almost falling, and as he nears her a snarl rumbles out of her own throat before she can cut the sound off.

"That wasn't--" she says. Her voice is deeper than usual, and she can't stop the rumble rolling under it, rolling through her chest and out of her. "I'm not--"

She isn't like him, she isn't this thing, whatever it is, she isn't--

The creature is still moving towards her without a word, and she runs at it blindly, trying to get past it, get away, get anywhere that isn't here. Its strong arm catches her, sweeps her off her feet, and those claws scratch her stomach as it puts her flat on her back on the ground.

She's straining up against the hand pinning her, snarling helplessly up at the blue wash of sky beyond the thing with its teeth bared in a rictus grin, and she doesn't realize anything has changed until she swipes at its chest and her claws slice through its shirt.

Its growl deepens in counterpoint to her wild, rising snarl, but she can't listen, can't hear or feel anything but the pain lancing through her, but the agony roaring her alive as she lies prone on the ground. Her head flies back as every molecule of her being writhes apart, tears away from her beneath the sheltering cover of skin, as her bones grind and lengthen and change, as she grows from infant to giant in a millisecond, becomes something entirely new and loses everything she had known of herself in the process.

She's on her feet without knowing how, facing Derek, close enough to feel his breath as it rushes out. She swings her claws at him with purpose this time, slicing skin as well as cloth, and the growl fills her senses as he swings back, tenor changing with the display of aggression. It's enough to let her step back, so his claws glance across her stomach, not digging deeply as hers had. But she doesn't get the chance to come up with another move before he advances on her, other hand coming up as the first drops away, tightening around her throat and sending her arcing through the air and onto her back with a jarring thump, lifting her bodily by the neck and slamming her down again and again.

Fear is still driving her, but it's holding her still now, because if she moved to attack all he would have to do is tighten his hand or twist her neck and she would be dead, even like this, she would--

He releases her throat and she's on her feet faster than thought, and when she lets her leg fly this time it connects with his jaw and knocks him backwards, sends him tumbling over into a crouch, and she kicks out again, catching his stomach hard and landing him on his back, and she pulls back for another swing and this time he catches her ankle and pulls so hard she feels something snap.

She howls as she goes down hard on her hands and knees, pants through the pain and glares up at Derek as he stands over her. He looks human again, but she knows he isn't now.

"Get up," he says.

She wants to howl again, wants to scream out her pain and rage, but she just shakes until she can fill her lungs and hold herself steady, and then she shouts, "Why are you doing this to me?"

"I didn't do this to you," he says, as though he isn't doing this to her right now, as though he hasn't just broken one of her bones.

"Stop," she pleads. "What do you want from me? Why did you make me like this?"

"Not the alpha you're looking for," he tells her, as though she has any idea what that means, as though she can even think right now.

"You're a werewolf," she says, agony threading her voice, making it tremble. She's angrier now than she's ever been, but it doesn't give her strength the way it had with Boyd, and she hates Derek for that, hates him.

"I didn't mean to hurt you," Derek says, crouching down beside her. "I'm sorry. It's close to the full moon."

She blinks at him tearily, though the pain is ebbing.

"I really didn't bite you, Erica. It was the alpha."

"What's an alpha?"

"The strongest type of werewolf," he explains easily. "They're more powerful and animal than we are. Much more dangerous. You're going to help me find it."

"I don't know how to find a werewolf," she says, crazed laughter bubbling up in her chest. "Apart from you, I mean, and honestly, I'd really rather not--"

"The alpha will find you," Derek tells her, refusing to be diverted from his purpose. "And you'll lead me to it."

She almost asks why he wants to find this other werewolf, but the fact that she super honestly doesn't care stops her. "Why would it find me?" she asks desperately, and then, horrified, "Are a ton of werewolves about to track me down and start whining outside my kitchen door like I'm in--" She cuts herself off before she finishes the thought, but Derek looks stiff and insulted anyway. And then a worse thought occurs. "Are they all going to know how to break in like you did?"

Derek rolls his eyes, which is totally unfair, because that is an entirely justified fear.

"You just did that!" she protests shrilly.

"Relax," he says. "The alpha is the one that bit you. You're part of his pack. He'll track you down and make you his."

"Not making me feel better!" Erica squeaks.

"Not trying," Derek snaps.

"Asshole," she fires back, and she means it this time.

"What did you tell the Boyds?"

"I don't know the Boyds," she says. "And I didn't tell Boyd anything. I won't tell anyone anything."

"Don't," he says sternly, like he's in charge of her or something, and adds, "And don't try and be friends with Vernon Boyd, he's from--"

"I'm not in your pack," she says furiously. "Don't tell me what to do."

Derek stills, and she takes the opportunity to scramble to her feet. He doesn't put her down again. "I don't have a pack anymore," he says. "But--"

She bolts.

Her ankle aches, but it holds her weight as she runs. She tries not to wonder how much it has healed and how much healing is left to do and how much damage she might be doing instead. She tries not to wonder how much her injury is slowing her down and how quickly Derek might be able to catch her up and how easily he might be able to take her down.

Panic rolls through her endlessly, but she doesn't think, she just runs, and Derek doesn't chase after her.

She has to slow down once she reaches populated areas, but she can move at a fast clip without breaking a sweat, so she's at Allison's within minutes.

Mr. Argent opens the door, holding a glass of orange juice. "Erica," he says in surprise.

"Hi," Erica says ruefully, shyness with this man almost a memory. He smiles in welcome, tilts the glass, and hands it to her as she steps inside.

"Hi," Allison says, summoned to the hallway by Erica's voice. Pleasure is melting across her face, almost swamping the relief.

"Hi," Erica says again, a little ashamed this time, and lets herself be drawn into the hug, lets everything but the warmth fade away.

"What happened to your shirt?" Allison murmurs into her ear.

Erica laughs, and it's okay that it's broken, here. "It wasn't my tits, though," she says, and Allison blinks, twice, and controls her reaction admirably. "That makes it okay, right?"

Allison tries to smile, and almost does it. "No," she says softly, and Erica has to pull away from her so she won't cry. She doesn't know how she would answer Mr. Argent's questions, because there is literally nothing of her life that she could truthfully share with an adult right now.

She dredges up a smile from the depths, flicks it at Mr. Argent, and makes it through dinner without spilling anything or messing up any of Mrs. Argent's fancy napkins too much.

Mrs. Argent tries to start a discussion about Erica's life and what she's doing to improve it, but Allison's father always supports the teenage girl's fundamental need for the privacy to gossip, and they escape upstairs pretty quickly.

Erica tells Allison all about it: about Boyd showing up to talk to her and how stupid she feels for being so angry with him just because he had moved away from her instead of closer; about everything Derek had said and done; and finally, when she can't hold it inside any longer, about what he had become, and what she had.

Allison rubs her mouth with her hand. Her eyes above it are troubled, but they're steady on Erica's face.

"Can you show me?" she asks.

Erica shakes her head frantically.

"Okay," Allison breathes out, dropping her hand, "Okay. But you're not a monster."

Erica's head doesn't stop shaking until Allison puts her hands on Erica's skull and holds it still, until Allison presses her cheek to the top of Erica's head the way she'd done when they were children and she'd been so much taller than Erica had ever hoped to be.

Erica doesn't know what she hopes for now. She doesn't know if she has anything to hope for at all. But Allison is murmuring unintelligible words of comfort into her hair, and Erica responds to it the way she always has. She always will believe in the comfort Allison offers, she thinks, no matter how many times the world proves Allison wrong.

"--fine," Allison is saying, when she lifts her head so that Erica can see her face and hear the words spilling out of her like water, like they cost her nothing. "You will be fine. You're strong, you always have been, and this is only going to make you stronger, I know it is--"

Allison's eyes are wet, and there's something like grief in her face, but she believes what she says so Erica does too, and Erica doesn't cry, though Allison has been, despite her faith in her own words.

Erica doesn't cry until they're in bed together in the dark, until the sharp, briney scent of Allison's pain has faded and she's warm and safe under Allison's familiar duvet, until she can press her forehead against Allison's shoulder and be sure Allison can't see her face when she wavers out in a breathless hush, "--don't think she's coming back, I really don't think she's coming back this time, and I don't know what to do, I can't--I don't know what to do about anything--"

Allison throws her leg clumsily over Erica's and pulls her closer, touches her face and strokes her hair, and for the first time in as long as Erica can remember, she doesn't have a word to say.