The crowd is streaming around them into the bumper-to-bumper traffic in the parking lot when Charlie turns to him, hands tucked neatly in her pockets.
“So. What’s the plan, Wolfman?”
“Don’t call me that,” Eli says immediately. Then, “What do you mean?”
“Look, we both know you didn’t want to come here for the game.” She gives him a look, and the tips of his ears go so hot he’s surprised they don’t steam in the cold. “There’s a party at some cabin, right?”
“How did you know about that?” he frowns.
“Are you serious?” she groans, rolling her eyes so hard she probably gives herself a headache. “I was literally standing two feet away when Captain Letterman invited you. So? What’s the plan, is he meeting us here, or what?” Charlie’s expectant look grows to an impatient stare, then to dawning disbelief. “You did make a plan, right?”
“I can’t believe you don’t even know where you’re meeting your date!”
“He caught me off guard!” Eli protests. “Owen barely talked to me before last night when I took his sister home, I wasn’t prepared! And it’s not a date.”
“Wow. There’s just. There’s a lot to unpack there.” She lowers her chin, burrowing down into the thick scarf wrapped around her neck, and shakes her head. “I don’t even know where to start.”
“How about we just don’t, then?”
Eli shoves his hands into his pockets and tries to stay calm. She’s right, he has no idea what he’s doing. Maybe Owen wasn’t serious when he invited him. Maybe he was, but he changed his mind. Maybe—
“Hey!” The sound of an approaching group is cut through by a familiar voice, and Eli jerks his head up to see Owen breaking away from the pack, loping up to them with a broad grin. “You made it!”
“Yeah, well.” Words, Eli. Use your words. “It was pretty slow at the diner, so. Thanks for inviting me.” An elbow jabs into his ribs as they follow after the group, and he barely stifles a yelp. “Uh. Us. This is Charlie.”
“I’m new,” she says brightly, and—though it might be his imagination—eases a casual half-step away from him. “So, where’re we going?”
“There’s an old tuberculosis cure cabin out behind the school,” Owen explains, and nods towards the trees looming at the far side of the field. “We do post-game bonfires there.”
Charlie looks between them. “We’re going to a cabin in the woods.”
“We’re going to a cottage in the forest?” Owen says, spreading his hands and smiling, like he’s trying to look as non-threatening as possible.
“An abandoned cottage,” Eli interjects with a grin of his own. He has to admit, this tradition is weird as hell. “Where people died of tuberculosis.”
“Ah!” Owen says, holding up a finger like he’s John Watson. Eli would swear on a stack of Bibles that his eyes are sparkling. Unbelievable. “Then why is it called a ‘cure’ cabin?”
“I’m guessing because doctors didn’t know how tuberculosis worked,” Charlie says, lengthening her stride to keep up with them. “And ‘cure cabin’ is way better PR. Anyway, if I go missing, please know my sister has a gun.”
That particular dose of reality is a mood-killer, but Owen doesn’t seem to notice. He laughs, clapping Eli on the shoulder as he’s pulled away by a cheerleader.
“Okay. Maybe not a date,” Charlie admits, linking arms with Eli as they trek across the near-empty football field. It’s . . . pleasant. “I really appreciate the fact we’re willingly entering the woods where you were attacked by a werewolf last night.”
Or it was.
“We’re in a group?” Eli says, unable to hide the fact he’s tacking a question mark to the end of that sentence. “Plus,” he adds, “there’s gonna be a bonfire. In the middle of the woods.” He pauses. “That’s really fucking stupid, isn’t it?”
“Are you just realizing that for the first time?” Charlie snickers, and he shrugs.
“It’s not like I’ve ever been before. Post-game bonfires are for the team and their group. I’ve never been either.”
“Until now. You were invited by Owen Blake,” Charlie says. She leans in conspiratorially. “Who looks scarily like that dude from The Covenant.”
Oh god, he does. That . . . explains a lot.
“That movie was total trash,” he says halfheartedly, and Charlie pokes him in the side.
“You’d have to have watched it to know that.”
“Yeah, well.” Eli grins. “I never said it was bad trash.”
That gets a laugh out of Charlie and . . . it’s nice. It’s nice walking arm-in-arm with someone who talks like they already have in-jokes, and it’s nice to have Owen Blake shooting him a smile over his shoulder, and it’s nice to be among people and just be.
He could get used to this.
Charlie breaks off to mingle when they get to the cabin, and Eli could also get used to the way that Owen seeks him out as soon as they’ve got the bonfire going. The way he tucks into Eli’s side against the cold like it’s a normal thing to do.
Charlie’s shoots him a thumbs up from the other side of the bonfire and he almost bursts into flames himself.
“I’m really glad you came,” Owen says quietly, making Eli look at him in surprise. “I wasn’t sure you would—it doesn’t seem like you’re much of a joiner. I mean.” He frowns. “That sounded bad, but I didn’t mean—”
“No, it’s fine.” Eli’s face is only warm because they’re sitting so close to the fire, and that’s the story he’ll stick to even under pain of torture. “You’re right. I’m, uh . . .” He laughs a little. “I guess you could say I’m kind of a loner.”
“You made friends with the new girl right away, though.” Owen’s smiling softly at him when Eli glances over again. “You didn’t just let her try to navigate a new school on her own. That’s really cool of you.”
“I didn’t really do anything.” Eli darts a look to where Charlie is standing, red Solo cup in hand, laughing unselfconsciously at something with another group. “I don’t think Charlie’s the type to have trouble fitting in. But thanks.”
They lapse into silence, and Eli’s heart speeds up. Why can’t he just talk? Say something, like a normal person! He’s never been good at this, always found it easier to stay the weird loner new kid rather than stumble through the unfamiliar territory of socialization rituals he never quite learned. And Owen is still pressed against his side, warm and solid and he smells so good, damn it, it’s hard to focus on anything else.
“Nah,” Owen finally says. “I don’t buy it.” He leans in, giving Eli’s shoulder a gentle nudge. “You look out for people. Isabelle says hi, by the way, and she told me to invite you over to the house to hang out.”
Eli blinks. “She did?”
“Yeah. I figured I’d start with something where it was just you and me, though.” Their eyes meet for half a second before Owen takes a drink, and Eli can’t tell if the red tint to Owen’s face is a flush or just the reflection from the plastic cup. “My house is kind of a zoo lately, anyway. My brother’s taking some time off of school, and it’s just kind of . . . tense. I ended up bailing on the Halloween party like five minutes after you left. Just couldn’t take it anymore.”
“Oh.” Bolstered a bit, Eli shifts so he’s angled towards Owen, though he almost can’t stand to lose the feeling of the other boy’s body against his. “Your parents don’t like your brother taking a break from school?” he guesses.
“That’s putting it mildly,” Owen snorts. “It’s . . . complicated, but even if everything else was great, my dad’s freaking out about the idea of Mike missing a whole semester.”
Eli nods. “He’s pretty intense about school, I guess.”
“He’s—my mom says ‘goal-focused’,” he says, making air quotes with his free hand. “He’s got these set ideas about what he wants for his kids. He wants Mike to be a lawyer.”
“What does he want you to be?”
“Straight.” Owen looks down, his hand tightening around his cup before he visibly makes himself loosen his grip. “My dad hasn’t wanted much to do with me since I came out.”
“Woah. That . . . that sucks. I’m sorry.” It’s not like he doesn’t know that that sort of thing still happens, but somehow it still feels like a shock. Like the world should’ve moved beyond that by now. “My mom was surprisingly chill when I told her I was bi. Uh.” Way to rub it in, asshole. “Sorry, that—I was going for like, empathetic support, not . . .”
“No, no, I get you.” Owen smiles at him, only a little bit hesitantly. “Your mom sounds cool as hell, though. You’re really lucky.” Eli’s face must do something because Owen continues. “Hey, it could be worse. He could have kicked me out.”
“Yeah.” Eli’s stomach drops just at the thought. “Still sucks, though.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it does.” Owen shakes his head. “Sorry, I’m being a total downer right now.”
“It’s totally fine!” Eli says. I don’t care what we talk about, I just want to be near you. No, shit, don’t say that! “If you ever need, you know. Someone to talk to? I, uh . . . I’ve got a lot of free time.”
He absolutely doesn’t, but he can’t be the first person to tell that lie, and he refuses to regret it. Especially when . . .
“I’d like that,” Owen smiles. “You’re really easy to talk to, you know that? I thought you’d be harder to approach, or I would’ve talked to you sooner.”
“You would’ve?” This time Eli’s certain the flush on Owen’s face doesn’t have anything to do with the firelight. The air between them feels charged, and Eli’s head is full of the scent of woodsmoke and cheap beer and Owen, and if he isn’t careful he’s going to—
“You’ve got to be shitting me! What the fuck is he doing here?”
Eli looks up but Owen moves quicker, surging to his feet in front of Eli like some weird echo of this afternoon, because it’s Austin throwing a royal fit as he rounds the fire toward them. Of course it is.
“Leave him alone, Tanner,” Owen says firmly. “I invited him.”
“Of course you did,” Austin sneers.
He doesn’t even slow his approach, which means the punch he throws lands with a sickening crack and all his weight behind it. Owen goes down like a sack of bricks, and people are shouting, but Eli’s not one of them. All he can see is Owen on the ground, and the blood on Austin’s fist, and then he’s catching Austin’s wrist as it swings towards him and twisting.
The snap of bone is audible—a clear crack, and then he hears Austin’s screams, and it was so easy.
He doesn’t feel himself let go, but he must, because Austin is staggering back from him, clutching his broken arm like a wounded animal. Like Eli had last night in the woods. He’s vaguely aware that everyone has gone quiet looking at him, but Eli can’t focus on anything but Owen’s blood in the dirt and the memory of Austin’s face when they’d both felt the snap.
Easy. So easy. So good.
He’s taken two steps forward before he stops himself and fights past the howling in his blood urging him to press the advantage, to finish it. His fists are clenched at his sides, his chest is heaving with furious, panting breaths, and all he wants to do is take one more step. One more step and he can make Austin pay for every awful thing he’s done in his miserable, pathetic life.
Austin is staring at him with wide, shocky eyes, his face bone-white as he cradles his arm to his chest. Terrified.
Rip him apart. It would be so easy.
Eli stumbles back, shaking.
And he runs.
There are footsteps behind him, running after him. He doesn’t look back. If he gets the shit kicked out of him it’s no more than he deserves, but they’ll have to catch him first.
“Eli!” Shit. Shit, shit, shit. Charlie. He runs faster. “Eli, wait!”
He’s faster than she is; he knows it in his bones. But he doesn’t know the woods, and all his new speed gets him is a hard fall when his ankle slams against a tree root and knocks him off his feet. He can’t just hear Charlie now—he can smell her, practically taste her scent in the air. Eli switches to pulling in shallow, panicked breaths through his mouth, trying to block out as much as he can as he curls in on himself amidst the fallen leaves.
“Hey.” Charlie’s voice is gentle, like it was when she talked him down . . .Jesus, an hour ago, if that. “Eli? Hey, I need you to breathe, okay? It’s okay. You’re okay.”
But he’s not. He feels a familiar tightening in his chest, and as his head swims he hears himself make a noise that sounds like a snarl.
“Eli?” Charlie sounds less certain now. “Eli, talk to me.”
“I . . .” He summons every scrap of control he has, focusing on her voice the way he did before, and manages to look up at her. “I think something’s wrong.”
By the time they’ve made it to Rose Lake’s only motel, Eli’s sprouted claws. Which, as weird shit goes, is edging towards the highlight of his evening. Even Charlie seems rattled as she wraps his hands in her scarf and yanks him the last few feet to her room.
Alyssa greets them with an unholstered gun in her hand because this is his life now, apparently. “What’s happened?”
“He’s turning,” Charlie says, and if her face is anything to go by, Eli’s not imagining the panic in her tone.
He doesn’t get the chance to ask what has her so spooked before a wave of agony rips through him, sending him to his knees on the stained carpet. Charlie’s scarf doesn’t survive the fall, torn clean through on claws that are sharper than they look.
Every time he closes his eyes he sees Austin’s face, the split second they’d both felt the crack. With claws like this he could’ve gutted him with one blow. God, he wants to throw up.
“—can’t be turning!”
“Why can’t I be turning?” Eli gasps, sagging as the wave pasts. It’s not his first. They’ve been getting stronger the whole way here, threatening to tear him in two with the pain.
Alyssa’s upside-down face swims into his vision and it takes him a moment to realise he’s on the floor, head in Charlie’s lap.
“If you turn without a pack—” She cuts off but Eli can see the rest of it on her face.
He’s strangely calm even as he says, “I don’t want to die.”
Charlie doesn’t realise she’s crying until she has to bite her own fist to stifle a sob. This isn’t how this was supposed to go. They were going to bring in the rogue and get Eli home. He’d join their pack and Charlie would tease him about his bad breath during his first shift and they’d laugh about it—they’d laugh so hard.
Instead she’s watching him crumple in her lap, bones in his forearms shifting grotesquely as his body fights the turn. She watched this once already. She can’t do it again.
If they can just get him back to their pack—
Alyssa comes back from the bathroom with a wet towel and Charlie grabs her arm. “Look after him.”
“What?” Alyssa says, startled. “Where are you going?”
“To do something stupid.”
Closing up the Diner is becoming a routine, one Penny can’t help but welcome after so many years spent on the road. It’s good for her. More importantly, it’s good for Eli.
He’s a tough kid—anyone who’d been through what he had would be—but he’s also one of the most compassionate people Penny’s ever known. He hasn’t had enough chances to indulge that side of himself, moving around as they had, cutting ties as fast as he could forge them. Rose Lake has been a long time coming and it’s oh so welcome.
As she shutters the blinds and flips the Closed sign on the door, Penny allows herself a spark of optimism, sputtering on a wick long-neglected.
Which makes the sudden hammering on the door like a bucket of ice water down her spine. Her first thought is, they’ve found us. But her second, they’ve found Eli, is strong enough to have her leaping for the handle.
The girl—Charlie—looks like she’s run from demons all the way to Penny’s door, and the look on her face does nothing to curb Penny’s rising panic.
“It’s Eli,” Charlie says. “He needs you.”
Eli’s teeth itch, which is one of the weirder sensations he’s ever experienced. When he reaches shaking hands to his face it’s to find his mouth is . . .full. Full and itching and then another wave of pain hits and he loses minutes—hours?—until he can’t—
“Why haven’t you called an ambulance?!”
As soon as he calls, she’s there, warmth and safety and home. Eli curls into her, and he spares half a thought that he probably looks like the tail end of a horror movie right now. But his mother’s his mother, and she just holds him, rocking back and forth in a way that makes Eli’s spine loosen and his breath ease. And the pain . . . the pain is suddenly a creature to be collared and tied down.
“Shhh,” His mother says. “It’s okay. I have you, I have you.”
“I have you,” Eli says, and lets the darkness take him.
The streets are quiet, no monsters in sight. In the diner, not so much.
It’s late enough that light is beginning to trickle through the blinds, casting long shadows across checkered tiles and the single full booth. Four Eli specials sit demolished in front of four individuals, each as tired as the last.
It’s been a long night. And a longer conversation.
“How did you know it’d work?” Eli’s mother asks, hand reaching over to squeeze his.
Charlie’s eyes pinch, one of a dozen signs of residual stress. “I didn’t. But I hoped.”
Eli’s mother’s grip tightens, and Eli turns his hand over so he can squeeze back.
“We’re human members of a werewolf pack,” Charlie continues. “I figured if humans can be pack, then—”
“Then I’d be Eli’s,” Eli’s mother finishes and smiles. “Good call.”
“This isn’t over,” Alyssa says, having the grace to look apologetic as she delivers the news. “You staved off a premature shift but you’ll still have to make it through the full moon. You’ll have a better chance with a territory and full pack behind you.”
Which means moving again. Eli looks to his mother to find her looking back. We’re in this together, kiddo, her look says.
“And you’re sure your pack will take us,” Eli’s mom says, and Eli could hug her for how she stresses ‘us’.
Alyssa nods. “I’ve already called them.”
And just like that, Eli’s putting Rose Lake in his tail lights. He’s surprised to find the thought gets stuck in his throat—the memory of a body pressed against his side is one that particularly stings.
“What about the rogue?” Eli asks, and if it distracts him from warmer thoughts then so be it.
“The full moon’s been and gone,” Alyssa says. “We have a bit of time to track them before they hurt anyone else.”
Jen Harker hurts. She knows a broken arm when she feels it and a particularly jagged root has made a mess of her back. And the bite . . . the bite throbs.
It isn’t fair.
She can’t help the thought. She’s a woman of simple interests: good coffee, good books, and regular indulgences of both. A slice of pie twice a week if she’s earned it. She thinks she deserves an equally simple death, not whatever this is—this pain and terror and chanting and blood, so much blood. But in the end, when the black comes, all that’s left is relief.
In the end, it’s simple after all.
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