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The Strength of the Wolf Is the Pack

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The plan had been to go to the bus station over in Palmerston, which was why they were cutting through the woods. That had seemed like as much of a plan as they needed. Neither of them had a license, so a bus was the logical way to leave town. Boyd thought he could probably drive a car if they had one, but he wasn't going to steal from his parents and they didn't need the cops after them for more than running.

That plan was a long way behind them. Four days, Boyd thought, but he could have been wrong. Getting tortured by hunters was disorienting, and the alphas were worse. When he and Erica were let loose, howls and threats ringing out behind them, they didn't look for buses or even roads. They just ran.

All night they had stayed in the cover of trees, with all the instincts of the hunted animals they were, both covered in the alpha-inflicted wounds that they'd been told were only the beginning. They put as many miles as werewolf speed could cover between them and Beacon Hills. Now that it was getting light they were both more staggering than running, and for the first time Boyd consciously realized that they'd been running north all this time.

He was pretty sure their previous escape plan had involved getting to a big city--Sacramento or Stockton, at least, if that was where the first bus was going. San Francisco would be the logical goal after that, and then maybe LA. They could lose themselves in a city, and having millions of humans around might at least force the alpha pack to be subtle about coming after them.

Out here, though....

"We need to find somewhere to hide," Boyd said, tugging at Erica's arm to bring her to a stop in a stand of trees. "We gotta rest until we can heal."

"Shasta," Erica said, not even looking at him, her eyes fixed to the northeast, tracing the lines of the mountains. "We have to get to Shasta."

Boyd blinked. He hadn't even realized he'd been following Erica all night, let alone that she had a plan.

"That's--" Boyd realized he had no idea where they were, or how far they'd come. "It's gotta be a hundred miles. We need to rest first."

"My uncle's in Shasta--first week of April, he always goes. He can help us," Erica insisted, tugging against his hold on her arm.

Boyd realized that Erica wasn't really thinking straight, maybe wasn't even totally awake. It was like she was in a trance, and he thought back over the night, over the days before, and tried to remember the last time he'd been really sure that she was with him. He didn't know. He'd thought if they both were on their feet that meant they'd escaped okay--give or take the threats the alphas had made about what would come next--but Erica wasn't all the way here, now.

"Erica," he said, gentling his grip and moving around her to try to make her look at him, instead of the horizon. "Erica, you heard what they said. They're gonna come after us. Anybody who helps us, anybody who has our scent on them, the alphas will go right through them. That's why we couldn't go home. We can't go to your uncle, either."

"You don't know my uncle," Erica said fiercely, but her gaze finally settled on Boyd. "He told me, he promised, he said if I got in any kind of trouble I could tell him. He said he would help. No matter how bad it was. Even if it was my own fault. He'll help."

Boyd had met Erica's dad a few times; he wasn't unlike Boyd's own dad, except for being white and not as fat. Erica's dad was some kind of insurance guy, and he wore white shirts with ties, and he drove a boring sedan, and an alpha could have killed him, just like they could kill Boyd's dad, without breaking a sweat. Without breaking a nail.

Boyd didn't guess Erica's uncle was going to be any different, except that if he lived up in Shasta he was probably the sandal-wearing aging hippie version. He could see that: he was probably the kind of uncle who wanted to be your pal and understand your problems and all that shit. He wasn't thinking of werewolves when he said Erica could talk to him about anything.

"I know he'll want to," Boyd tried. "But Erica, you know what's coming after us."

"He'll help," Erica repeated, her gaze skipping away from Boyd again. "We have to--"

And then she broke his hold and took off running, a flat-out sprint. There was nothing for Boyd to do but chase her. It didn't take long before he realized she was headed for the road, but there was some kind of mania driving her, and Boyd just couldn't catch her before she was stumbling down an embankment toward the shoulder, staggering right out into the path of a car. Boyd hid himself behind a tree, because he could already hear the yelling--and braking--of the driver. This, too, was part of Erica's plan, and he had a feeling the battered blonde girl thing she had going on would not be helped by his presence.

Sure enough, she more or less swooned onto the car, staggering into position so the driver couldn't open his door without knocking her down.

"Please," she called out, "Please, I just need to use your phone for a minute."

"I'm gonna call 911," the guy said, and Erica let out a shriek that probably could have broken glass if she kept it up another few seconds. The guy stopped cold.

"No cops. No sirens. Please, please, just let me call my dad, he'll come get me, please."

There was a long pause--not a silence, because it was full of hammering heartbeats, Erica's every bit as much as the driver's--and then the guy rolled his window down and offered Erica his phone.

Erica took it and bolted right back up into the trees, blowing past Boyd and making him chase her again even as the furious cursing of the guy down on the road trailed after them. Erica stopped when they were well hidden in the trees but still near enough to hear traffic, and Boyd said, "What."

He couldn't even make an entire question out of that.

"Don't want the alphas smelling me on him, he's not involved," Erica said briskly, even as she dialed a number to drag her oblivious uncle into this.

Boyd knew he should take the phone from her, should spare her uncle from this and convince her to do something else, but... he'd been following Erica all night. He had no idea what else to do, and Erica was already pressing the phone to her ear.

"Reyes," the voice on the other end said, small and flat through the phone but stern enough to make Boyd take notice.

"Uncle Rudy," Erica said. "It's me, I...."

After a second of silence, Rudy said more gently, "Erica, mija."

Suddenly there were tears streaming down Erica's face.

Boyd stepped in, closing his arms around her, heedless of the blood covering them both. Erica curled down into his arms as her uncle said, "Where are you? I'll come get you."

"Highway 3, north of Trinity Lake," Erica said, her voice shaking horribly. "Uncle Rudy...."

"It'll take at least an hour for me to get there," Rudy said. "Are you safe right now? If you're not safe where you are, you need to call the highway patrol. I'll come pick you up from them."

"I can wait," Erica said. "Please. Just hurry."

"For you, always," Rudy said. "I'll call when I'm close, mija. You need to save your phone battery. Sit tight."

"I will," Erica whispered, and then the call was cut off.

She shivered in his arms for a moment, then steadied. Boyd loosened his hold on her.

"Erica," he said hesitantly, "are you sure--"

"We need to head north along the road," Erica said, turning and setting out at a steady jog that was the best pace they could keep up with their injuries. "We'll meet him sooner that way."

So, yes, apparently she was sure. She might be wrong--she might be disastrously, lethally wrong--but she was sure. Boyd didn't have anything better than that to offer, and he sure as hell wasn't going to stay behind.

Close to an hour later they'd slowed to a walk, and Erica stopped suddenly and said, "I think that's him."

She grabbed Boyd's hand and towed him out of the cover of the trees, onto the strip of bare hillside above the shoulder of the road. Boyd tried to focus his senses on the vehicles approaching from the north, but there were a handful of them within range, all moving pretty fast.

An SUV came around the curve up ahead and Erica jumped and waved her arm and then started running again. There were two people visible in the truck. Boyd heard both their heartbeats spike with surprise and then quickly settle, almost in unison, into a fast but steady rhythm.

The SUV pulled over and stopped just a few yards ahead of them on the shoulder. Boyd dragged on Erica's hand just enough to slow her down to human speed getting over the little fence between them and the road.

By the time they'd gotten up onto the shoulder, both men had gotten out of the truck. They were dressed similarly, in jeans and t-shirts and hiking boots--no sandals to be seen--and they both carried a gunmetal smell that made Boyd think of the hunters. On the other hand they moved--even breathed--in sync in a way that reminded Boyd of the alpha pack. He didn't think, he just stepped up in front of Erica, tugging her by the hand to try to put her behind him, because all his senses were screaming danger.

Both men stopped short as soon as Boyd made that move; the smaller of the two men took a step back, spreading his hands. The taller, who was well built and kind of intimidatingly hot in the way that Boyd mostly associated with werewolves even though he smelled human (hunter), stood his ground.

"It's all right, little brother. We're here to help."

It was the voice from the phone. This was Erica's Uncle Rudy, and suddenly Boyd could see why she thought he might stand a chance against the alphas.

Boyd glanced back toward Erica as he thought it and realized she hadn't tried to break his grip on her. Her heart was racing as fast as his own. Even though she recognized her uncle, she smelled and heard the same things Boyd did, the way these men were an unholy combination of hunters and pack, and definitely not their own ragtag (former) pack.

"You must be Boyd," Rudy said, and Boyd turned to look toward him again. "Do you two know where Isaac is? I hear he's missing, too."

Erica let out a tiny high whimper that the humans didn't seem to hear, her heartbeat speeding up further. Boyd squeezed her wrist and then shook his head, trying not to think too much of what could be happening to Isaac right now, what would have happened to him for sure if he'd listened to Erica like Boyd had.

His voice came out steady enough for human ears, he thought. "He didn't come with us. He might be with some other friends back home."

Rudy nodded slowly. "Okay. So there's the two of you, and the two of us. This is my friend, Patrick--everyone calls him Pappy. You remember me talking about him, don't you, mija?"

"Oh," Erica said, and that apparently explained things enough to overcome Erica's fear of the men. She shook off Boyd's grip and darted around him to fling herself at her uncle, who caught her in a gentle grip and kissed the top of her head before he pushed her backward. Boyd could see and smell Erica's blood all over him, and as much as he hated the smell of her blood on the outside of her body, it did dilute Rudy's hunter-smell.

Belatedly, Boyd realized that there wasn't any smell of wolfsbane on them; they were probably just regular hunters, not hunters.

Erica turned toward him and her heart beat steady and sure as she said, "Sergeant Patrick and Uncle Rudy were in the Marines together. I wrote them letters when they went overseas."

When Boyd glanced toward him, Patrick had lowered his hands and nodded in Boyd's direction. That explained some things.

"I'll drive, Rud," Patrick said, keeping his eyes on Boyd as he spoke. "Looks like you're gonna be needed for first aid."

Rudy tossed his keys to Patrick without looking. Patrick snatched them easily out of the air and moved around to the driver's side of the SUV.

"Wait," Boyd said, because Rudy was already towing Erica toward the door. Rudy already smelled like her, and maybe that meant it was already too late, but somebody should tell these guys what they were getting into. They weren't Marines anymore, after all, and even if they were they wouldn't have been trained for werewolves.

Everyone actually stopped, looking at him, and Boyd fought the impulse to run away from all of them. He shook his head and said, "There are--people after us."

Erica flashed her eyes at him--both men were watching Boyd, they didn't see--but Boyd just shook his head and kept going. Erica got to make her decision, but he had to live with this, too. For a little while, at least.

"They said they would get to us, and they said anyone who helped us would be a target too. That's why we didn't go back to Beacon Hills, to keep them away from our families. If you--"

Patrick just shook his head and turned away, getting in to start the SUV again. For a second Boyd thought he was actually going to just leave them, and he felt something too huge and despairing to be disappointment. Right then he realized how much he'd believed Erica's insistence that her uncle would help. He realized he believed they would die on their own.

Rudy shook his head, too, beckoning for Boyd to come closer with one hand, pushing Erica toward the door with the other.

"We don't leave people behind, little brother," Rudy said firmly, and Boyd could hear the steady, untroubled beat of his heart. He wasn't lying, and he wasn't intimidated.

Some of his assurance found its way to Boyd. They weren't abandoned after all, no matter how much they deserved to be.

"Especially not family," Rudy went on. "If trouble's coming after you, it's going to find plenty more trouble waiting for it."

Rudy patched Erica up first, bandaging the stuff he could see; Erica didn't tell him about the rest, and Rudy didn't push. Boyd gave her his hand to hold, and Erica kept quiet--and human-looking--through almost all of it. Rudy was nearly done cleaning up blood smears with a lemon-reeking alcohol-wipe when he closed his hand around her wrist.

Erica kicked out instinctively, but Boyd thought she did her best to pull it. Boyd tried to help, jerking her toward him and away from Rudy. Still, Rudy wound up on the floor, pressed up against the back of the front passenger seat; Boyd could smell his burst of adrenaline, not anger or fear but readiness. For an instant Rudy had his hands up in a posture that wasn't defensive at all.

Then Pappy, up front, said, "Rudy? You okay?"

Rudy relaxed, and Boyd could hear their heartbeats finding each other again, falling into the same smooth rhythm. "Yeah, Pap, I just poked a sore spot. I'm sorry, Erica."

Erica shook her head and conjured up a wobbly smile. "It's okay, Uncle Rudy. You didn't hurt me."

But her heartbeat, like Boyd's, wasn't settling down as fast as the humans'. He knew what she'd remembered when her wrist was held, and he knew he'd have fought just as hard. Harder, maybe.

Even as she spoke Erica was climbing over Boyd, trading places with him. She didn't trust herself not to hurt her uncle. Boyd wasn't sure why the hell she thought Rudy would be any safer with him, but she was right enough. Rudy didn't make that mistake again.

After Erica and Boyd were both patched up, Rudy climbed into the front seat and buckled up.

"It's another twenty miles or so," he told them. "We'll get you fed and you can clean up there."

"Thanks," Erica said quietly, leaning into Boyd's side.

He half-closed his own eyes, watching the men up front and calculating where to put his hands. He needed to look exactly enough like Erica's boyfriend to still be family without doing anything that was going to upset her gun-toting uncle--uncles, really, the way she treated them both. After a few seconds Erica made a frustrated noise and climbed half into his lap, making herself comfortable and dragging Boyd's arms around her. Boyd let his palms rest lightly where she put them, on her hip and shoulder, and closed his eyes a little further.

He didn't sleep, but he felt his body relax, and he felt Erica unwind against him. They were together, and they weren't in immediate danger, and Rudy and Patrick's smells were already becoming familiar and pack-like themselves. This was the safest they'd been in a long time, and they were both pretty close to the end of their ropes.

"Pap," Rudy said quietly, and Boyd closed his eyes all the way, listening for all he was worth.

There was a small sound of motion--Patrick shaking his head, maybe--and then he said quietly, "Don't, Rud. If what's yours is mine, then that includes the headaches. Especially the headaches."

Boyd felt Erica's tiny, hidden reaction--just a flex of her fingers against his side and a stutter in her heartbeat--at Patrick's words. Boyd realized simultaneously that it was like that for her uncle--uncles, for sure--and that Erica hadn't known about them until right now.

He swept his thumb along her hip, trying to soothe her down from that surprise. Erica gave a tiny nod against his shoulder, easing against him again.

It wasn't, in the scheme of the surprises they'd had this week, such a big or terrible surprise. It wasn't terrible at all, really. It meant these guys had secrets too, and that they weren't precisely the good old boys Boyd had been afraid of when he saw them standing on the side of the road. They still wouldn't know a damn thing about werewolves, but maybe they weren't so likely to freak out over Boyd being Erica's boyfriend.

He wasn't sure he was, really, even if he knew that was what they would see, because they would never guess packmate. He and Erica hadn't had a lot of time to talk about their relationship status. But if they had a chance at surviving, maybe it was going to matter now. Maybe he'd dig up some nervousness from somewhere for the thought of asking Erica to be his girl.

For now, they were almost safe, and Boyd was too tired to worry about much of anything.

He must have dozed, because he came sharply awake when the car stopped. They were on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by trees; it could have been the Beacon Hills Preserve again, except that Boyd was pretty familiar with those woods by now, and none of it looked quite like this spot.

Erica sat up beside him, separating from Boyd to settle her hands into her own lap. "Uncle Rudy?"

"It's all right, mija. I just wanted to tell you before we get to the cabin--this week is a rendezvous. Pappy's here because a bunch of the guys I was with in Iraq are here, so there are going to be some guys you don't know around when we get in. They won't bother you, but you seem like you don't need any more surprises."

"Thanks," Erica said, and took Boyd's hand again. "Is it the guys from your team?"

Rudy nodded. "Yeah, Manimal and Chaffin and Budweiser are all here. Plus we got Stiney and Doc Bryan to come up this year."

Boyd tightened his fingers on Erica's, trying to think of a way to ask without asking. He could feel Erica beside him doing the same.

"Doc's probably going to want to check you over, make sure you don't need a hospital," Rudy added, before either of them found words. "But he usually packs for these trips like he's back to being a field medic, so he can probably patch you up just fine."

"If you'd rather see a regular doctor," Patrick added, without looking around at them, "just say the word, and we'll drive out to the urgent care."

That calculation took only a second, and Erica's hand tightened on Boyd's even as he squeezed. "Doc's fine. We're not hurt that bad."

Boyd nodded agreement when Rudy looked his way.

Rudy nodded back firmly and turned to face front. "Okay, Pap. Let's roll."

They passed through a couple of intersections--one of them, Boyd could hear, led to a busier road, and maybe the route to the urgent care Patrick had mentioned--and a few miles further on they turned from the dirt road onto a narrower dirt track. Erica's hand tightened on his, and Boyd started listening out for heartbeats up ahead. He couldn't remember how many names Rudy had rattled off--five? Six? Between being sealed up inside the car and the terrain outside, Boyd couldn't make out anything until they came around a curve and the cabin came into sight.

There was a guy on the porch, a dark-haired white guy about the same size and age as Patrick. He was standing with his arms folded, watching with an intent frown as the SUV rolled up. Boyd could pick out the other heartbeats--four of them, anyway--coming toward them from the woods behind the cabin. Patrick turned off the truck and he and Rudy started getting out, and Erica followed them unhesitatingly. Boyd scooted across and followed her out through the door on her side, not going out of her reach.

The frowning guy--whose live-wire tension Boyd could smell and hear in his heartbeat as soon as he stepped out of the truck--came toward them as they piled out.

"Doc," Patrick said, and though it was a drawl that didn't sound anything like an alpha's snap of command, Doc halted in his tracks. He looked toward Patrick, then Rudy, who was coming around the truck to join them.

Doc unfolded his arms, rocking back a little, before he looked toward Boyd and Erica again. His expression only darkened as he looked them over--they were bandaged everywhere their clothes were torn, and bloodied all over the place, despite Rudy's haphazard cleanup.

But in the next second he looked up, meeting Erica's eyes and then Boyd's. His face softened, and the tension Boyd could smell in him wasn't cruel or dangerously suspicious. The smell of his anger had the protective tinge Boyd had detected in Derek sometimes: fury at those who threatened the pack. His voice, when he spoke, was surprisingly gentle.

"I'm Doc Bryan--pretty close to being an actual doctor these days--"

Boyd was pretty sure he and Erica both managed not to look over until the men coming around the side of the cabin were audible even to human ears. He couldn't quite resist backing up a step when he saw them: four full-grown muscular men, all white, two with big goddamn guns slung casually over their shoulders, moving like pack and smelling like hunters.

Erica's hand was tight on his, dragging him back another couple of steps. He didn't quite catch the words Rudy snapped out, in a hard tone Boyd hadn't heard from him before. Whatever it was was, Doc echoed it, sharp and irritated.

Two of the men--the biggest one and a wiry white-blond guy who came up to his chin--lowered the guns hastily to the ground and then straightened up with their hands spread wide. The other two--both dark-haired, either one of them as big as Derek--sidestepped away from their packmates, likewise showing their empty hands.

When the first surge of panic passed, Boyd realized that he couldn't hear or smell threat on any of them, just the kind of nervousness a human might have in the presence of a barking dog. He also realized that Erica had sunk claws into his hand, and he was bleeding. He looked down at his own hands--perfectly controlled--and then back up at all the men--all the grownup heavily-armed ex-Marine white guys--standing there looking at them.

It was the wiry blond one who moved first, and when he took a step forward Patrick said a low, cautioning, "Chaffin," just the way he'd halted Doc before.

Like Doc had, Chaffin broke stride and looked toward Patrick--acknowledging the alpha?--but he nodded and kept walking toward Boyd and Erica after that slight hesitation.

"Hey," he said right to Boyd, not dividing his attention between him and Erica. "Hey, man, you got the same look my baby brother gets on his face when he walks into a bar and sees nothing but white people."

There was no stutter of a lie in Chaffin's heartbeat, something generous in his smell. The change of heartbeats came from the rest of the men, who clearly were surprised by what Chaffin was saying.

Chaffin put his hand out to shake. "I know you ain't gonna really trust us right off the bat, man, but we're all family here, even if we look like a bunch of cracker hicks. Rudy brought you home, that makes you family to all of us, and we look out for our own."

Boyd looked around them, but he didn't hear a single objection in the heartbeats of the men around, no recoiling from the idea, no silent resentment of Boyd standing hand in hand with a pretty blonde girl. He nodded slowly, offering his less-bloody hand to Chaffin.

Chaffin cracked a smile and gave him a firm, serious handshake before he turned half away from Boyd to say, "That mountain of a man with his dentures out is Manimal, that's Bud--Brunmeier--"

"They know what beer is, Chaff," Budweiser corrected with a smirk.

"Not in front of their uncles they don't," Patrick drawled.

"Brunmeier," Chaffin repeated. "And that's Stiney. And I'm guessing Doc was about to take a look at you two, so maybe we should just get back out of everybody's hair."

"So to speak," Boyd said dryly, touching his hand to his own bare head.

Chaffin grinned. "So to fuckin' speak, yeah."

He reached out--up, slightly--and rubbed his palm casually over the top of Boyd's head, like tousling a little kid's hair, even as he turned away to face the others. "Come on, assholes, let's give the kids some air."

The newcomers disappeared back around the side of the house, and Patrick tossed the keys back to Rudy and went with them, leaving Boyd and Erica with Doc and Rudy. Doc had backed up nearly to the porch while Chaffin was talking to Boyd, and Rudy was still standing at the bumper of the SUV.

Now Rudy came a little closer, waving them toward the cabin and Doc, and Doc nodded and turned, leading the way inside. Erica moved at the same time Boyd did, their steps in sync. He felt perfectly like pack with her, for a few strides as they walked up to the cabin and inside, neither leading nor following, but side by side.

Doc was waiting just inside, in a living area with battered couches and a strong smell of male humans, all seven of the men they'd met and no others anytime recently.

Doc looked them both up and down again, and looked past them to Rudy as he shut the door behind him and locked it. Boyd looked around automatically for alternate exits--there were three doors off this room, a big front window and three smaller ones down a side wall. Boyd didn't hear Rudy say or do anything after he turned the lock--his heartbeat stayed perfectly steady--but Doc nodded and looked back to Boyd and Erica.

"If you made it this far you're not going to bleed out or go into shock right now, so why don't you go get cleaned up. We'll find you some clean stuff to wear, all right?"

Boyd nodded, Erica nodding in unison beside him.

"Use my bathroom, it's the cleanest," Rudy added, from behind them. "Over here, the bedroom off the kitchen."

Rudy herded them toward the kitchen without coming within touching range, and Boyd made it right into the middle of the kitchen--which was surprisingly tidy, considering there were seven guys staying here--before all the food-smells hit him. He tried to keep moving, but his stomach growled loudly enough that he was pretty sure the guys outside could hear it, let alone Rudy and Doc. Beside him, Erica's belly made a noise like an angry dog being muffled under a pillow.

"Wait," Doc said. "Jesus fuck, when's the last time you kids ate?"

Boyd turned back to look at the men behind them, stopping halfway to meet Erica's eyes and try to remember--what counted, how long had it been? Did the stuff the alphas had put in their mouths count if they'd mostly puked it back up?

"Been a while," Boyd admitted, because Erica looked like she was feeling sick just thinking about it.

Doc came toward them. "Give me your hands--Rudy, get some fucking Gatorade--did you have water, at least?"

"Yeah," Boyd said, because there had been the river last night, and they'd stopped more than once to wade in and drink until they sloshed.

Doc scowled in concentration, pinching the skin on the backs of their hands. "Okay, so no food yesterday? Any food the day before? Anything solid?"

Boyd shook his head slowly. Rudy shoved a bottle of Gatorade into his hand and another into Erica's, caps already off.

"Drink that," Doc directed, but Boyd was already gulping it down, hurrying it into his empty stomach. Erica, by his side, wasn't being any daintier. Boyd noticed, as he finished the bottle and lowered his head, that there was a yellow-green trickle trailing from the corner of her mouth and down the line of her jaw, and he was suddenly glad that Rudy hadn't brought them the red kind.

He handed the empty back to Rudy and said a breathless, "Thanks."

Rudy nodded, taking Erica's a second later. "I'm sorry I didn't think of it sooner, mijos. We could have gotten you food sooner."

"No, this was--we wanted to come here," Erica said. "It's safer here."

Neither Rudy nor Doc said anything to that for a few seconds, and then Doc shook his head and said, "They shouldn't have solid food yet anyway. We'll heat up some soup while you're washing up. One of you yell out if the other throws up the Gatorade, all right?"

They both nodded. Boyd's stomach felt stretched and sick, but he knew that would pass in a minute or so; werewolf digestion was nearly as efficient as werewolf healing.

Erica took his hand again, towing him the rest of the way through the kitchen and into a bedroom that smelled like Rudy and Pappy but not nearly as much like sex as Boyd would have expected. Were they being careful, or just polite, with five other guys in the house? Or, hell, they had to both be forty at least, maybe they just weren't going at it all the time.

It only struck Boyd then, as Erica led him into the bathroom--he pushed the door shut behind them and locked it, eyed the small window above the toilet--that no one had suggested they wash up separately.

"Shower?" Boyd asked.

Erica nodded even as she brought her claws out, slicing through what was left of her shirt before twisting to undo the--intact, though salt-stained from sweat--bra beneath. Boyd had seen her boobs a couple of times before--he'd lost his virginity to her two weeks ago, before everything went totally to hell, not that that was any help figuring out whether she was or might ever be his girlfriend--and he looked reflexively now.

He barely saw anything before his eyes tracked down. Her pale skin was purple-black with bruising from her left armpit to her hip, with a handful of angry red spots marking the places where her skin had broken open under the repeated impacts. There was a border of sickly green at the edges of the vast spread of bruising, and the lines of her ribs disappeared under the swelling.

Her arms were bandaged in four different places where Rudy had been able to see the raking wounds from claws, and the blood and grime on her wrists half-camouflaged the marks of restraints that lingered there. Her feet, when she bent and pulled off her tattered shoes, were streaked with blood.

Boyd wasn't in much better shape, though he didn't show bruises so easily; Rudy had wrapped a few of his more obvious cuts with gauze. He and Erica filled the wastebasket in the bathroom with bloodied gauze and tape, and then they stepped together into the hot water of the shower. He thought they should talk, get their stories straight, something, but they just shuffled back and forth, taking turns under the spray, helping wash each other up. The water ran red, and then pink; their slow-healing wounds, mostly clotted, broke open again under the running water and their not-careful enough hands. Erica's shook as badly as his, which made Boyd feel a little less bad.

Boyd was carefully washing out Erica's hair--she had a couple of nasty scalp wounds where the alpha bitch had pulled out chunks of her hair--when a heartbeat approached. Both of them froze.

There was a knock on the bathroom door, and Rudy called out, "I'm leaving some clothes out here for you."

They both stayed still, listening as Rudy walked away and closed the bedroom door behind him, and only then did Boyd go back to carefully loosening the knots in Erica's shampoo-slippery hair.

They left the bloodied towels with their discarded clothes in the trash bag Rudy had brought them along with the clean clothes. There were sweatpants and a Marine Corps t-shirt for each of them, Erica's smelling like Patrick and Boyd's like one of the men who hadn't come too close--probably Manimal by the size. When they limped quietly out to the kitchen Rudy and Doc were waiting, and there were two steaming bowls of some kind of soup that smelled mostly of vegetables and some kind of grain.

Doc let them eat while he bandaged them up. Boyd could hear and smell a hard-to-interpret kind of unhappiness on him--anger or sympathy or suspicion or all of those--but he didn't say anything about their injuries or ask them any questions. When they were both all patched up, he let them have seconds of the soup, and then sent them off to get some sleep in Rudy's (and Patrick's) bed. Once again, no one tried to separate them. They curled together on the clean and pack-smelling sheets, arms laid carefully over each other, foreheads together.

Boyd woke at one point to the awareness that all the men's heartbeats were clustered together in the cabin's front room. Chaffin was saying, "Never seen any sixteen-year-old kid who looked like that."

"Of course you fucking have," Doc replied, and although Boyd's nose was full of the smell of Erica and soap and the bed, he could hear that same grim unhappiness in Doc's voice and his heartbeat.

"We've all seen teenaged kids exactly like that, through a fucking rifle scope. They look like kids who've been living in a war zone--and those injuries they have, no fucking way are they accidental. They're not fresh, either. They're half-healed. Those were deliberately inflicted wounds, untreated. Those kids have been imprisoned and tortured. I don't know what fucking kind of town Beacon Hills is, but whoever's after them, they are not fucking around."

"Fine," Patrick said, sounding calm but deadly serious. "Then we establish a perimeter--"

Boyd fell asleep again to the sound of the grownups making plans.

He woke up to a confused thunder of heartbeats and loud tense voices and Erica springing off the bed. Once again--as always--Boyd followed her, chasing her out of the bedroom and out to the front of the cabin. More than fear or anticipation of a fight Boyd was aware of a snapping of tension; this was the moment they'd been waiting for ever since the alphas turned them loose.

Patrick was in the doorway. He tried to block them from going out with an arm across the opening; quick, clipped voices from a radio in his hand were reporting intruders. The rest of the men were ranged at various distances outside the cabin.

Erica pushed by Patrick without breaking stride, sending him hard into the doorframe, and Boyd followed in her wake before Patrick had regained his feet. They both stopped at the bottom of the porch steps; Boyd caught the smell of a werewolf--just one, unfamiliar, not the alphas but something else--a second before a ragged figure burst out of the trees.

His eyes glowed a crazed green and he was already shifted, fangs showing in an open mouth as he roared challenge, claws tearing at the air as he ran. He was dirty and had the unmistakable sickly look of an omega. He carried the lingering stink of the alpha pack, who must have sicced him on them with a promise of reward for good behavior.

Boyd pressed close to Erica's side and roared back, bracing himself as the omega gathered itself to leap--and fell, a red hole blooming in his forehead, blood and brains spraying out behind him at the same second the crack of a gunshot sounded behind them.

Boyd whirled to look, and found Patrick standing at the top of the stairs, just lowering a rifle.

Four of the others, with Rudy in the lead, came running out of the woods, and Doc and Brunmeier jumped down from the porch. All of them but Patrick started to converge on the omega as Patrick said, "I think it might be time for you kids to tell us exactly what the hell is going on."

Erica looked around, standing tall and strong for the first time in days. Boyd watched her draw every eye, the attention of every man settling on her. She gave Boyd a wry smile and flashed her eyes gold as she looked up at Patrick.

"We're werewolves. And we're going to need an axe."

After the omega had been safely cut in half, wrapped in a tarp, and stashed in a shed to be properly disposed of later, Erica and Boyd sat side-by-side on kitchen chairs dragged into the living room, facing seven men waiting in grim silence for an explanation. All of them had seen the omega, which had thankfully stayed shifted after death, claws and fangs demonstrating what it was. All of them had heard Boyd roar, seen the flash of Erica's eyes.

Boyd held Erica's hand, contributing a few words when she needed to pause and catch her breath, but mostly she did the talking. She told them how Derek had offered her the bite as a cure, and managed to make it sound like he'd saved Boyd from something as dire as epilepsy when he invited him to the pack to escape fat, lonely loserdom. She skipped the whole mess with the kanima and went straight to what had happened to them in the last week: the hunters and then the alphas. She explained how the alphas had tried to use them the way they'd used the omega and would probably keep using other omegas, making them fight each other, trying to force them to go after Isaac or Scott.

She recited the alphas' parting threats, verbatim.

"And then we just ran," Erica said, her voice worn down to quiet hollowness at the end of the story, the straight-backed pride gone out of her. Boyd squeezed her hand.

The men were a confusion of smells and heartbeats Boyd couldn't unravel except that none of them were happy, but they were all still riveted on Erica.

Erica rubbed the back of one wrist across her eyes and looked up to meet Rudy's eyes directly for the first time since she started describing what the alphas had done. Her voice almost died away to nothing as she said, "You told me if I--if I was ever in trouble. To call you."

There was a moment when no one spoke. The room was filled with the sound of rapid heartbeats and the silence of held breath. Rudy crouched down in front of Erica, looking back and forth from her face to Boyd's.

"I meant that," Rudy said slowly, but there was a weird kind of sadness in his face; it took Boyd a few seconds to comprehend that it was disappointment. "But Erica--you volunteered for this. You knew the risks. And then you abandoned your brothers, your pack, to these alphas. You deserted them."

All at once the steel was back in Erica's spine; she sat bolt upright and threw her shoulders back, her eyes glowing gold. "I did what I had to to survive!"

"I know why you did it," Rudy agreed, still quiet and calm in the face of a furious werewolf. Still disappointed.

"But it doesn't change what you did. Every one of us here has made that bargain, Erica. If you want to be something more than ordinary, that is the risk you take: it might kill you. We all learned to be warriors. We all came under fire. I could have died--Pappy could have died. Any of us could have died. We stood firm because we had promised to, and because we couldn't abandon each other."

"Derek," Erica said, and then stopped short and looked over at Boyd, but she knew as well as he did that that was going nowhere. They'd told Derek they were going, but they couldn't pretend he'd released them willingly.

Boyd shook his head. "Derek said, once we started running we'd always be running."

"Only one thing to do, then," Patrick said. He was standing behind all the others, watching over them. The rifle was propped against the wall at his side. "You best run on back before those alphas get to your pack. And this time, you bring reinforcements."

They were on the road back to Beacon Hills in under an hour, the setting sun making their shadows stretch long where the trees didn't already block it. Doc rode along with Rudy, Patrick, Erica, and Boyd, and the rest crammed into another SUV. They made a few stops for supplies--although they'd already had a terrifying amount of hardware on hand, given they'd packed just to hang out with friends in the woods for a week.

All the way down Doc and Patrick were on the radio to the men in the other SUV, making plans. Boyd and Erica helped them develop a map of Beacon Hills, including the preserve as far as they could remember, and the likeliest places they might find the alphas and what was left of Derek's pack. They were still thirty miles away when everything was worked out as well as it could be, without knowing what they were going to find.

"Okay," Doc finally said. "You two put your heads down, try and get some sleep. I don't care what species you are, you've been through a lot in the last few days, and we're going to need you sharp."

"Sleep?" Erica demanded. "How the fuck are we supposed to sleep?"

But Doc had his eyes closed and his head tilted back, and Boyd found his own eyes closing in the quiet that followed the frantic preparation. The last thing he was conscious of was Erica's head coming to rest on his shoulder.

They rolled through Beacon Hills with the windows down, but there were no fresh traces of any familiar werewolf--nor the Argents, nor Stiles--anywhere in town, so they headed out to the preserve. They weren't far in at all before Boyd's heart started racing, responding to the presence of the alphas even before he realized he could smell them: Kali, Ennis, Ethan and Aiden. Deucalion. They were all in the woods tonight, and so was Derek. So was Isaac, and Scott--and Stiles, of course, in the middle of things as always--and a werewolf whose scent (ash and rage and death and flowers and blood) Boyd didn't recognize.

Erica signaled for silence, and she and Boyd listened for heartbeats and sounds of movement. They pointed out the positions of everyone in the woods--friendlies and hostiles, to use the men's words--with the hand signals Patrick and Doc had taught them on the way down.

Rudy stopped the SUV, and the other SUV halted behind them, the men piling out in eerie silence. Patrick and Rudy gestured, and men disappeared into the trees, ghostly quiet and surprisingly quick for humans. Patrick checked the guns they'd prepared for Erica and Boyd, then handed them over. Rudy kissed Erica's forehead, hugged Boyd hard, and waved them forward, toward the place where everyone in the woods was clustered together.

Boyd grabbed Erica's hand, and she grinned over at him. This time when they started running, they were side by side.

They made it almost all the way to the ruin of the Hale house before they caught the attention of one of the alphas. Boyd heard it the moment one of them started toward them. They were close enough by then to tell that Derek and the rest of the pack were cornered in the wrecked house, making some kind of last stand inside a ring of mountain ash and bickering about what to do next. It was one of the twins who turned carelessly away from the cat-and-trapped-mouse game to lope toward them through the trees.

Boyd and Erica let out a shared howl just before he--whichever one he was--came into sight. The alpha laughed even as Derek's howl rang out in answer to them; the laugh sent a cold shiver of awful memory down Boyd's spine even as the howl gave him hope that this could still turn out all right. Erica raised her gun and fired with a wide, white-toothed smile.

The explosion of the paintball against the alpha's chest was just barely audible before the crack of the rifle from behind them; as Rudy and Patrick had promised, even to werewolf sight the splash of infrared chem light wasn't visible, but the men in the trees had their goggles on. It would light up each of the alphas like a flare to their sight, telling them where to shoot and who not to, if Derek or the others came running.

The alpha, whichever one he was, went down in a heap, and instantly his twin's howl went up like a siren, with Derek's howl behind it, furious and ferocious and still holding his position. It would sound and smell like hunters to Derek, hunters coming here again.

Boyd hoped like hell Derek was still on the inside of that mountain ash circle, and then there wasn't time to hope for anything. He dragged Erica down to her knees as the other twin alpha came out of the trees to stand over his brother's body. Boyd fired this time, and the rifle shot came from somewhere off to the left this time--Manimal, not Patrick.

Kali and Deucalion roared as the second twin fell, and Boyd clutched Erica closer for a second before Patrick ran up from behind them and Doc and Manimal closed in from the sides. With the men looking on, Boyd pushed himself up to his feet, and Erica did the same beside him.

There was no roar of warning this time. Ennis burst out on them, red eyes glowing and murder in every line of his body; even before Boyd could remember to bring his gun up all three rifles sounded around them, a spray of bullets that left Ennis a bloodied mess at their feet.

They moved around him to the fallen bodies of the twins and even before Boyd or Erica could remind them about the alphas' powers, Doc raised his rifle and fired again, a burst this time, spraying several bullets into the fallen alphas' skulls to be sure they couldn't heal.

Another burst of fire sounded at almost the same time, from the direction of Kali's roar, and then a confusion of sound as the pack, realizing there was only one alpha left, poured out of the house in Deucalion's direction. Boyd and Erica took off running toward them, to make sure they were there to sort out friend from foe on all sides.

Derek and Deucalion were facing off in the space in front of the house, while the wolf Boyd didn't know stood on the bottom porch step with his arms outstretched, keeping Isaac, Scott, and Stiles behind him. Chaffin and Rudy came circling in from the left, and Brunmeier and Stiney came from the right. Derek didn't take his eyes off Deucalion, but Boyd could feel his alpha's angry awareness of the men closing in, and he knew there was only one chance for this to come out right.

"Derek, get down," Boyd yelled.

Derek didn't actually obey, but he looked toward Boyd, which was enough for the men to know which one he was. Deucalion lunged in, trying to take advantage of Derek's distraction, but rifles sounded from every direction, and Deucalion lurched back and forth with the bullet impacts before he fell at Derek's feet.

Erica took off running toward Derek while Derek was still staring down at Deucalion. Boyd followed a little more cautiously, waving at the men to stay back.

Erica threw herself at Derek, who hugged her tightly, then took an arm away to grab Boyd and pull him in. Boyd went happily, clutching the edge of Derek's jacket and pressing close to him and Erica both as Derek's arm closed hard around them.

Derek whispered, for their ears alone, "They said they killed you--your blood was all over them and I couldn't find you anywhere, I thought--"

"I'm sorry," Erica was saying, "I'm sorry, we should never have run."

"Well," said an unfamiliar voice and Boyd looked up, stepping back from Derek to see the strange werewolf, who'd come down from the steps and was poking Deucalion's body with his toe. "Running does seem to have accomplished something, in this case."

"My uncle and his friends brought us back," Erica said. "They're not hunters. They're Marines."

The stranger just raised his eyebrows.

Derek echoed blankly, "Marines?"

Stiles said, "Well, I guess if you're going to declare a war you want the Marines on your side, right? Very small war, you only really need, like, seven of them to end it."

"You kids call this a war?" Chaffin said, wandering up with the rest of the men. "This wasn't even a skirmish. Hell, we're all on vacation this week. This was just a little light target practice."

"What my brother is trying to say," Rudy put in, hooking an arm firmly around Chaffin's neck, "Is that we protect our own. We were happy to help Erica and Boyd."

Derek's eyes traced over them and back down to Deucalion, dead on the ground, then back to Erica and Boyd, and the rest of the pack, unharmed.

"Thank you," he said finally, and then frowned. "You weren't using wolfsbane--"

With the smell of blood and cordite so thick in the air, and so many heartbeats crowded around, Boyd didn't hear or smell her coming. None of them did. Kali was just there, suddenly, blood-covered but horribly alive, lunging in at Chaffin and Rudy.

Everyone turned on her at once; Boyd got in a clawed swipe, and there were several gunshots fired, point-blank. When she went down again there was a hot smell of human blood in the air, and a ragged bite on Rudy's forearm.

Rudy took his arm from around Chaffin and frowned down at it, and Doc said, "Rudy, let me see that."

Rudy didn't move for a minute, flexing his arm, and then he looked up and said, "I think it's okay, Doc," as his eyes flashed red.

Derek and the strange werewolf--Peter, Derek's uncle, apparently--took Rudy aside to explain to him that he'd just become both a werewolf and an alpha in a matter of seconds. Patrick stood quietly at Rudy's shoulder, and when the explanation was over Rudy stayed quiet.

It was Patrick who sighed and shook his head and said, "Now I'm gonna have to get bit, too, just to keep up with your supernatural ass."

Rudy looked over with a smile and said, "I dunno, Pap, you never kept up with me before and we managed just fine."

Patrick just shook his head and said, "What's yours is mine, Rudy. I'm with you on this one, too."

Everyone stayed all night, watching the five alphas' bodies burn and trading stories of what had happened since they'd seen each other last. Rudy alternated between meditating--which was apparently a thing he did all the time, judging by the way it didn't surprise or even especially interest the rest of his guys--and trying out his new werewolf skills, playing some complicated kind of tag with Patrick and the others. Derek couldn't seem to go ten minutes without touching Boyd or Erica, as if reassuring himself that they'd really come back, and after a few hours it began to sink in for Boyd.

They'd come home again. In the morning he could go back home, to his parents, to his own room and his bed and his life, and when he got done being grounded forever and catching up on a week's worth of homework, his pack would be here waiting, too.

And Erica would be here. For the first time Boyd felt a flutter of nervousness at the thought of what she would be to him, after all of this, but when he reached for her hand she reached right back. That was good enough to start with, for tonight.

When the sky started to lighten and the fire had mostly died, the Marines all got packed up to leave. Everyone followed them down to the SUVs, still parked on the dirt road into the preserve. Rudy argued all the way that his newly enhanced reflexes would make him a better driver, while Patrick insisted that there were better ways to get used to those reflexes than a multi-hour drive into the mountains.

Stiney and Brunmeier just nodded to Boyd and Erica before climbing into the back seat of their truck, but Manimal gave each of them a pat on the back, and Chaffin shook their hands, and then so did Doc, and Patrick, before he went and climbed pointedly into the driver's seat.

Rudy hugged Erica first, and she whispered, "Uncle Rudy, I'm so sorry--"

"No, Erica," Rudy said, stepping back. He put one hand on her shoulder, the other on Boyd's. "I told you before, you did right to come to me. This is my dharma, and I will try to walk this path well. Don't hesitate to call for help if you need me, mijos."

He smiled, letting his fangs show, and added, "I'll be quicker, next time."