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When Lydia has had enough distance to think about it – when she’s moved beyond lying on her bed for hours on end, shellshocked, absorbed by watching rivers of blood burst their banks behind her staring eyes – her first thought is that this won’t happen ever again.

That means making plans, strategies, lists – Lydia starts as soon as she can concentrate long enough to hold a pen, feeling that familiar satisfaction of tackling a difficult problem, and then, trailing it, the overwhelming relief that she can still feel that, that he hasn’t taken that as well as everything else.

There are two acceptable options to go to for guidance, the way she sees it – Allison, and Erica. Allison, whose weapon is her bow, her reflexes, and her upbringing, versus Erica, whose weapon is her body – her claws, her contemptuous laugh, her teeth.

She chooses Erica, because she wasn’t born into power, either.

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Erica, to her credit, doesn’t laugh when Lydia approaches her in the school parking lot. She looks concerned for a hot second, as though she can see straight through Lydia and knows that Lydia contemplated never getting up again, never walking anywhere at all - but then it’s gone, disposed of or tucked away somewhere, and the placid look of mild contempt is back.

Lydia stands her ground, raises her chin and widens her eyes a little, like so…?

“Why not go to the hunter?” Erica asks, tone a little abrasive, but not enough to indicate she’s dismissing the idea. Lydia lowers her gaze when she shrugs.

“Allison has enough on her plate right now,” she says. When she sneaks a look up at Erica, she’s eyeing Lydia with vague interest. Lydia schools her face so she won’t give away the smug satisfaction warming her.

“I can pay you,” Lydia says finally, making her voice light and offhand, the last ace up her sleeve. She doesn’t cross her fingers inside her jacket sleeve, even though she could – she doesn’t believe in luck now, if she ever did.

“Alright,” Erica says, eventually.

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“Use both hands,” Erica instructs her, putting her palms over the backs of Lydia’s, and adjusting her grip on the handle. Lydia stiffens, fighting the instinct to throw her off, and it only takes Erica a second to get the message, backing up.

“You need both hands,” she says again, from a few steps away, as if nothing happened. Lydia supposes she’s used to harsher non-verbal signals than that, living in a den of wolves. “You’re just a beginner, so nothing fancy. Plus you could jar a muscle with the kickback if you only use one hand, and it’s better for aiming anyway.”

“Okay,” Lydia says. She squints at the target, shifts her weight from foot to foot, and then fires.

When Erica suggested starting at the shooting range, Lydia had this vision of instantly being perfect, like Lara Croft or something, enough of a crack shot to make Erica swallow her tongue. In reality, there’s a spray of bullets pretty much everywhere except where she was supposed to hit, it seems. It’s as though the gun isn’t just a thing, a tool, but a living creature with a mind of its own.

She winces and lifts her ear protectors, looking to Erica to get the mocking over with.

Erica surprises her, though – she’s grinning, white teeth behind her lipstick, as though Lydia is a puppy who’s performed a trick rather than messed the carpet, which is how Lydia feels.

“Not bad, Red,” she says. When Lydia lifts an incredulous eyebrow, Erica’s grin becomes a little more amused, but doesn’t falter.

“I’ve seen worse, believe me,” she clarifies. “It’s a start, don’t knock it.”

It’s a start. Everything has to have a start. For some reason, this makes Lydia feel better.

“Show me?” Lydia asks then, nodding at Erica’s hired gun. Erica grins, and the second the weapon’s in her raised hands, Lydia feels herself as woefully inadequate as she must look. Erica shifts, changes, like she’s becoming the wolf, but this transformation is all internal. Her eyes are clear, focused, her body beautiful, her stance powerful and assured. Her posture doesn’t flicker as she squeezes out ten bullets, all straight into the heart of the target.

When Erica lifts her ear protectors, Lydia can’t help her long, low whistle. If she didn’t know better – didn’t know Erica was completely immune – she might even think Erica looks a little bashful, as well as pleased.

“How did you learn that?” Lydia asks, as she takes up her position next to Erica, ready to go again. Out of the corner of her eye, Erica shrugs.

“Dad was brought up in the backwoods,” she explains, looking at the target, and not at Lydia. “We used to – a lot, before it. You know. Got bad.”

The epilepsy, right.

“Hey,” Erica says, hitching that grin back up again, “let’s go at the same time, alright? Ten bullets – we’ll see if I can hit the heart every time, and we’ll see if you can actually land all ten somewhere on a target.”

Lydia widens her stance, lifting her gun. She feels determined, the heady thrum of having a goal.

The resulting spray is crazy, the noise terrific, and almost as soon as she starts, Lydia’s laughing – it’s all wrong, she can feel it’s too high even though she can’t hear it over the ear protectors, but it’s a start. Everything has a start.

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Erica teaches her other things. About the exact angle to break someone’s wrist, and how to crack a skull with the butt of a handgun, and the different kinds of knives.

“The hunter would really be better for this,” she says, as she and Lydia squint at a diagram demonstrating a particularly fancy throwing technique, trying to pace it out.

Lydia wrinkles her nose. This gets harder to deflect every time Erica mentions it. “Allison –“

Erica interrupts.

“No, I know – you want to protect her, you don’t want her to know how bad things are. I don’t matter, so I’m the perfect solution.”

Lydia’s mouth opens automatically to object, but Erica just keeps a sceptical eye on her, an eye that says Erica’s been lied to enough times before to be able to dismantle an untruth right down to its parts, just like a handgun.

“You matter,” Lydia says, uncowed.

The Hale house only has Derek in it, as it always does when Erica brings her round. He stays away from them, oddly respectful – though Lydia supposes maybe she’s giving him too much credit, it’s not like she encroaches on his personal space or anything. She refuses to go inside, but can’t deny that the woods around back are handy for target practice, and the backyard is peaceful and quiet, sunny. The air out here is nothing like the air in there, and she isn’t alone. She doesn’t need to be afraid.

“Sometimes it’s a relief to not matter,” Erica says, very quietly. Her knees are drawn up to her chest. It’s got cold around them, Lydia hadn’t noticed. A breeze is picking out goosebumps on the backs of her arms.

“Come on, Red,” Erica says suddenly, rolling to her feet and opening up her stance, inviting. She flicks a hank of hair back over one shoulder, opens up her mouth enough to show her fangs. “Pop quiz: show me how you’d kill me.”

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Lydia still reads and learns better than she fights. She’ll never be Erica, but that’s okay – she still wants to be Lydia, still wants to reduce people to rubble with a single caustic putdown – she just wants to be a stronger Lydia, a more dangerous Lydia. Herself, but armored.

Erica brings her books from Derek’s collections, and Lydia learns to brew potions for protection, how to bottle liquid fire hot enough to sear; potions that create a blinding light when the container is thrown, enough for her to get away.

Erica collects the things she needs from the forest and brings them back in Lydia’s flower-patterned backpack, incongruous with her wolfed form, the huge teeth.

“Do you think you could ever really kill someone?” Erica asks, hovering at Lydia’s shoulder while Lydia grinds flowerbuds into a paste with a pestle. “If it really came down to it, I mean. If you had to.”

The paste she’s making looks a little runnier than the dusty illustration in the book. There’s a light pencil addition in the margin that she hadn’t noticed before, correcting the recipe’s suggestion of three intact spiderwebs to four – so that’ll be why. The handwriting’s the same as the delicate Laura Hale written on the bookplate, just inside the front cover.

Lydia knows what Erica’s really asking – is the combat and defense stuff too much, would Lydia rather concentrate on learning how to brew herself out of trouble. It’s a reasonable question, but the truth is, Lydia isn’t a witch – there’s only so far she’ll ever be able to go into magic. She’s already come across potions she’ll never be able to distil. She can get frustrated, or she can find another way to bite back.

“Yes,” Lydia says, as she pinches another spiderweb between her fingertips and adds it to the mixture. “I just want to make it so that I don’t ever feel I have to.”

Erica sits at her side as if she’s been comforted, as if Lydia has passed a test. Her cheek grazes the cap of Lydia’s shoulder so fast that she wouldn’t even have been able to swear it happened at all.

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The first time Lydia cries in front of anyone since – since Peter, is when she has Erica’s shoulders pinned beneath her knees on the mat, and then she slips.

Erica rolls her over easily, and puts the palm of her hand against Lydia’s collarbone, pressing lightly. She’s always careful to never put her hands around Lydia’s neck.

“I’m sorry, Red – I’ve got you, you’re dead,” she says softly.

It’s happened countless times so far in this little experiment, but this is the time she cries. She doesn’t sob, the tears just leak out of her eyes uncontrollably, sliding down past her ears to splash against the mat at her back.

Erica gets up off her immediately, but doesn’t make a fuss, doesn’t try to pull her up. She simply scoots to the edge of the mat and sits up, staring off at the back of the Hale house. There’s no implication that she’s horrified or embarrassed by Lydia’s reaction, just that she’s trying to give as much space as she can without leaving Lydia alone.

“I know what it’s like to want to be powerful, Red,” she says. “You need to be patient with yourself. You’re going to do it.”

Lydia’s hands shake when she presses her palms to her cheeks, trying to dry them. The tears have gone cold immediately on her skin. It’s getting late.

“I need it,” Lydia says, voice raw. It burns to admit.

“You think I have all the power I could ever need,” Erica says, finally turning back to look at Lydia, still lying on her back on the mat where she was felled. “You look at me, and that’s what you think. But – the money you pay me, I give it to Derek. I’m buying my power, too.”

Lydia knows Derek is rolling in life insurance payout, couldn’t possibly have any real need for anything Erica gives him – but Lydia knows, too, how it would burn her to stay somewhere and feel like she was at someone else’s mercy, relying on their kindness, their love. She’d do what Erica is doing. The thought makes her feel less ashamed, less weak, makes her feel as though it’s okay for her to lie for a few seconds more on the mat, listening to some small bird calling from the trees.

“We don’t have to do anything else today,” Erica says finally. The sky looks like rain over her head, gray and thick. Lydia has a chemistry test tomorrow. She doesn’t want to move.

“I can drive you home,” Erica offers. Lydia shakes her head minutely.

“We can stay here,” Erica says instead, then. When Lydia just looks at her for a long second, choked up with all the things she won’t let herself say, Erica curls up on the mat beside her. They don’t touch, but Erica’s body is curved in a protective parenthesis between Lydia and the house, Lydia and the rest of the world. She doesn’t move even when the rain does start, soft patters on her chin, her forehead, her eyelids.

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Lydia only gave Erica her phone number so they could make arrangements to fulfil their contract, but soon Erica’s calling erratically for other reasons, often while Lydia’s in bed on the edge of sleep.

“I had this fantasy, when I was a kid,” Erica is saying softly into the phone, barely more than a whisper, on a Thursday night close to the full moon. Lydia’s bedroom is softly illuminated by the pink light from the scarf-covered lamp she now never turns off. She’s so tired that it seems as though Erica’s voice is all around her, coming from her pillow, enveloping her.

“I was a big girl, and I was a superhero – I drove around the streets at night in this crazy car, hurting people who picked on anyone weaker than them. I think I pictured myself as, like, vigilante Catwoman.”

She chuckles softly, as if this is ridiculous.

“You ever have those kinds of daydreams?” she asks. Lydia actually didn’t, is the thing. Not as a kid.

When Erica doesn’t get an answer, she says, “you about ready to go to sleep, Red?”
Her voice is soft, indulgent, there’s a smile in it.

“Yeah,” Lydia says, and doesn’t remember anything else until she wakes up the next morning, her cell battery flat.

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The gun, when Lydia gets it, is a beautiful thing. Small, with a silver barrel. She wears it whenever she can, in a holster on the inside of her thigh, only inches from the hem of her skirt. The stiletto heels of her shoes can be broken off to reveal throwing darts, and around her neck she wears lockets containing a hemlock paralysis potion, a Molotov cocktail, and a ward to protect her from evil.

At the sight of Lydia bedecked in all of it, everything she’s learned, Erica bends her head in pleased, proud submission. Lydia knows enough to recognise this gesture, and swallows down her surprise to place her narrow hand on the nape of Erica’s neck. This doesn’t make her Erica’s superior – it’s a strong wolf recognising the power of an equal, she thinks.

When she drives around with Erica at night, not going anywhere in particular, she feels like she’s flying. Look at the girl and the wolf, she thinks. Her gun is cold against her thigh, just hidden.

Let them try and touch her, now.