My aching head.
I wake up with that thought and an extreme throbbing in my skull. I open my eyes, squinting against the bright light that pierces through to the back of my head. My body feels stretched too tight, and I'm too hot; I feel like I'm a rubber band about to snap in two. My skin prickles as my body releases me from my deep sleep, and I feel a rush of cool wind on my face. I yawn, and as I do so, I realize there's a strange taste in my mouth. A thick irony tang coats my tongue, though I can't remember what I ate last. I lick the corners of my mouth and taste more of the strange flavor. Even the small motion sends a wave of exhaustion through me. I can't suppress my moan of fatigue.
The sound of Chanson's voice is like the explosion of a rocket and my ears feel like they're bleeding from the echo of her voice. I want to say something to her, but the humming in my ears stops me from doing any more besides whimpering in pain.
"Quiet, Chanson," Broma's cool voice soothes the harsh ringing in my ears, but only slightly. "Give Leara some room."
Slowly and painfully, I pull myself into a sitting position, squinting against the brilliant rays of the setting sun. I blink and register the furry faces of my pack-mates gazing at me, though the concern on Broma and Chanson's faces catches me off guard.
"What happened?" I ask. The sound of my voice surprises me--it's hoarse, as if I hadn't drunken anything for days.
Chanson licks her lips nervously, and her gaze flickers to Broma. The blood-wolf's eyes are curiously gentle, and I notice suddenly how he's standing, how they're all standing.
Arraigned in a semi-circle, facing me, as if they're trying to block something from my view—or to keep me enclosed.
My head pound as a memory tries to re-surface from my foggy recollection.
I struggle to get my feet underneath me, but before I can stand up, Toboe is there, his human projection in my way. His gaze locks with mine.
"Maybe you should sit down for a bit longer," He says. "You've lost more blood."
I look down at my side, where my knife-wound was, and gasp to see the long, fresh gouges in my skin. How did I get those?
I study the wound, trying to dredge up my memories. Five long, clean swipes across my ribs.
The realization hits me like a ton of bricks, and suddenly, I know what the pack's trying to hide from me.
With the little strength I have, I push Toboe aside and stagger from the pack's protective semi-circle. What I see sends chills down my spine. The cat, lying in a pool of its own blood, its eyes staring vacantly upward. I see the gaping hole where its throat once was, and memory floods through me.
I killed the cat! My thoughts scream. But how…?
I lick my dry lips in contemplation, and I taste that strange coppery flavor on my skin.
A wave of nausea hits me as I taste the blood in my mouth.
My knees buckle and I vomit violently, sickened by the sight in front of me.
What have I done? And how did I do it without getting killed? I wonder as my body tries to rid itself of the cat's blood in my stomach. The memory of the fight flashes in my head. It was almost as if… as if I were a wolf.
Soon enough, my stomach is emptied and I hastily wipe my mouth with my dirty sleeve. I turn hesitantly to my pack-mates, afraid of their reaction to my weakness as well as my kill.
"Leara, what happened?" Toboe is the first to speak. For a moment, his gaze isn't on Tsume, but on me.
"I killed the cat," My voice is a mere whisper. "It tried to kill me, but I…I attacked it instead."
Broma's ears quiver, as if he hears something beyond what I've said so far.
"How, though? How could you kill a wildcat?" He asks, disbelief in his eyes.
I look at the cat's corpse, my own eyes wide. "I…bit it…I bit its throat."
Surprise flickers across Broma's muzzle and Tsume eyes me warily.
"You tore its throat out?" Tsume asks skeptically. A flash of anger surges through me, a shadow of the fury that had possessed me earlier.
"If you don't believe me, look for yourself." I snap. "My teeth marks are visible, even from here."
Tsume shrugs nonchalantly, though there is a spark of fear in the curve of his smirk. He kneels beside the bloody scene, his eyes carefully studying the cat's shredded neck, while Broma silently eyes me with a nondescript expression. Chanson bounds to my side, giving my cheek a quick and gentle lick, though that doesn't distract me from the issue at hand.
I gather my legs underneath me and stand, only wobbling slightly. I suddenly find myself repulsed by my weakness. Get a grip on yourself; you're not half dead. Determined to ignore the aches and protests of my worn-out body, I plant my feet firmly on the ground and take a deep breath, closing my eyes in concentration.
"When I left you all, I was angry," I begin to explain. "And annoyed and frustrated. So when the cat attacked, I just…channeled all those emotions…to attack it. I let my instincts take control, let my body react to what was happening, because I was—I am—tired of being just a human…and then, after I'd…torn its throat out…I collapsed. Next thing I know, all of you are here, trying to wake me up."
Silence greets my monologue. I open my eyes to see the faces of my pack mates in disbelief and awe. Chanson looks as if she wants to howl with joy, while Zari and Toboe look stunned. Broma… Broma's face is expressionless, though his eyes betray a slight panic.
"You…unleashed your instincts?" The blood-wolf repeats. I meet his gaze with my own.
"I've been having these dreams lately… dreams about a she-wolf."
Broma's face drains of all color, and a small snarl forms on his lips. Tsume looks at me from over his shoulder, one eyebrow raised in a questioning expression.
"So what, you're going wolf too?" He smirks. His words—which had been meant as a joke--are met with astonished glances and surprise.
I feel my heart beat faster in my chest. Was such a thing even possible? Could a human turn into a wolf, out of sheer necessity?
I shake my head slowly. "I don't know…well, I don't think so, anyway. Who ever heard of a human turning into a wolf?"
Broma suddenly turns his back to me, facing the direction of the sunset. His hair whips in the breeze, and in the silhouette of the sunset, he looks like a lone hero out of an old comic book, or maybe even the villain. The others don't notice his strange behavior though; instead, their eyes are locked on me.
"Maybe you're acting this way because of the moon," Chanson suddenly suggests with an air of childish wisdom.
I reluctantly release my gaze from Broma, and turn my eyes up to the quickly rising moon. I want to gasp from the beauty of it. The darkening sky is the perfect background for the silver orb that's filling the night with its light. The moon is as round as an eye, and seems to be as all-seeing; the eye of a human, the eye of a wolf. I find myself mesmerized by the pearl of the night; the mere sight of its dim outline makes me want to dance, to sing for the pure beauty of nature, the joy of being free.
Instead, I look earthward, grounding my thoughts and my strange fantasies. Toboe and Tsume are looking at me strangely, while the pups' eyes lay on the moon.
"It can't be that," I answer their unasked question softly. "The moon's never held power over me before…and why would it change now?"
Toboe cocks his head to the side. "Do you think it's because you've been around us for so long?"
"She's nothing special, kid," Tsume interrupts. "Just a human. And humans aren't affected by the moon."
For once, Tsume is right. There is no way that the full moon holds sway over me.
"I think we should keep moving until nightfall," Broma's voice is strangely distant and his eyes seem dull. "When the moon rises, we'll stop and have the rites of the full moon. For the pups' sakes."
I want to protest this change in subject—after all, the mystery of how I'd managed to kill a full grown mountain cat was still unsolved—but I was cut off by the joyful cries of Chanson and Zari.
"Full moon rites are always fun!" Chanson yips. She prances in excitement, her tail wagging furiously. Zari's reaction is slightly more nullified than his sister's, yet its there all the same.
Broma catches my eye, and his reasoning becomes clear to me. The pups shouldn't be subjected to any more strange occurrences. This is something that the older members of the pack will deal with, while the pups try to enjoy a façade of normalcy.
Toboe glances toward the direction of the rising moon and quickly looks at me. "Leara…if you feel as if...you need to stop or anything…just say something."
I snort derisively, and a spark of fierce independence flares within me. "Now you're concerned about the pace? You don't need to worry about me anymore. I think that from now on, I'll be able to take care of myself."
Toboe lays his ears flat against his skull in what I know is chagrin. I degrade myself for hurting his feelings, but at the same time, I feel a tiny sense of triumph. Hopefully he'll realize how much of a jerk he's been acting like.
The dusty wolf dips his head in slight acknowledgment, and his eyes are soft. "You're right, Leara. Guess I really don't have to worry about you anymore."
As the sun completely sets over the horizon of the world, the moon's light takes over the night sky. The pups are rampant with the silvery light of the full moon; they yip and growl and playfully prance under its guiding eye. Even Toboe is caught up in the glory of the full moon. He is running amuck with the cubs as well, his amber eyes joyous and his steps light as if he's taking part in a dance. Even Broma—whose strange mood hadn't yet fully abated—is slightly cheerful. His eyes are glued to the moon, his tail wagging ever so slightly, though he doesn't join in the wild dance of the pups.
Tsume and I are the only ones not taking part in this moon-drunk spell. Tsume seems distracted, almost as if something's nagging at him. I don't pay much attention to the gray wolf; after all, I've got my own problems to solve. Like the one about me possibly turning into a wolf.
The thought of becoming a wolf makes me feel distressed and liberated at once. How would I react to losing my human body—the one I've had for seventeen years—and then gain a new, bestial one? Would I lose all my memories from my two-legged life? More importantly, how would I feel towards my pack? Would all my emotions towards them remain the same?
The thought of losing who I am sends a slick fear through me. What would be the point of becoming something else when I lose so much in return? Would the costs be worth the gain?
I try to imagine myself as a wolf; a long legged, fit she-wolf with a pelt the dark color of my hair, and eyes of gold-brown. The image feels wrong somehow, and I shrug my musing aside. There was no possible way I could be turning into a wolf…
"How can they be so happy after everything that's happened?" Tsume's voice cuts my thoughts short, and I turn my attention to the gray wolf. His eyes are glued to Toboe's dancing form, though his expression is indecipherable and vague.
I shrug. "There are several reasons, I think. One, because they're young, and they are so full of life that they reach for the joy in all things. They embrace their past, while thinking only of the now and accepting their lives."
Tsume turns to me with a cheerless smile on his lips. "Aren't you the philosophical one tonight?"
I shrug again. "Maybe it's because I'm doing my own introspective analysis. Or maybe its because I'm confused about…well, everything."
Tsume makes a little hmph sound, but otherwise says nothing. The only sounds I hear are the happy yips of the cubs and the deeper barks of Toboe.
"The runt irks me," Tsume says, breaking the peaceful silence. "He won't leave me alone, no matter how hard I try to get him to stay away."
"You're his pack-mate." I say simply. "He's not going to stop any time soon."
"But why is he so loyal? How can he be so willing to accept me?" Tsume's questions catch me off guard, and I turn to look at the gang-leader. There's something different about him; his expression is soft, and there's a strange guilt in his eyes.
"After everything that's happened between us, after our last lifetime, how can he still want to be with me?"
It hits me like a bolt of lightning, and I feel my jaw drop in surprise and realization.
"You know you're a wolf. You recognized Toboe from the very beginning." The truth stumbles from my lips without any prodding. "You're deliberately trying to erase your true nature."
I realize now why Tsume's appearance seems so different. His human projection fades before my very eyes, and I can clearly see the gray wolf, the "X" scar on his chest turning silver in the moonlight.
"Yes. I knew, from the moment Kip brought Toboe into the Spine City," Tsume admits needlessly. "I didn't want to remember him, though. I didn't want to have to face the fact that I wasn't there for him when he was killed. I didn't want the memories from our first journey, because then I would have had to accept my mistake…the mistake of not being there."
I stare at Tsume, my earlier assumptions of the pack beta forgotten. He had put himself into exile because he hadn't been there for Toboe? I hadn't realized that his loyalty ran so deeply, especially for the youngest member of his pack.
"I knew you remembered me, Tsume."
During Tsume's confession, I hadn't realized that the sounds of the full moon playing had ceased, and I'm surprised to see Toboe standing still. He'd obviously heard the entire conversation, and his eyes were alight with a mixture of joy and hurt.
"You're my pack, Tsume," The dusty wolf says proudly. "You, Kiba, Hige and Blue and Cheza, and now this new pack too. I don't blame you for my death, you know."
Tsume looks away from the dusty wolf, as if he wants to deflect his emotions. The big gray says nothing for a moment, before snapping his gaze back to Toboe's.
"Now that you know, will you stop bothering me?" The old Tsume is back, and a flood of relief fills me. In reply, Toboe launches himself at Tsume, playfully nipping at the gray's tail. Tsume growls, but even he is now moon-drunk, and drunk with the relief of telling the truth.
I watch as the pack plays underneath the moon, and a twinge of jealousy and yearning fills me. I find that I'm filled with the need to join in, to celebrate alongside them. I can't resist the urge; I throw myself in the circle of running wolves, spinning and dancing under the eye of the moon. They all surround me, creating a ring of fur and fang and claw. Their paw steps are thunderous on the caked earth, creating a bestial rhythm to our dance. As our beat reaches a crescendo, the wolves stop simultaneously and each throw their heads back as howls escape their throats. Their voices are each unique, yet they combine perfectly to form a whole; Tsume's voice, filled with raw power, merging with Toboe's gentle strength while Chanson's howl floods the sky with a sweet, untamed melody. Zari's tones are rough, though they carry within them a feeling of bravery and remorse. I close my eyes and spin dizzily, and I can almost hear words rise from the howls of the pack.
Freedom of the untamed wolf, joy of pack and strength of claw; the moon rises and fall, huntress of the night, eye of the wolf in the dark. Howl to show life, live to show pride, proud to be free of heart; run to the path of Paradise.
The sheer raw beauty of the words that form in my head make my eyes swell with tears and my heart feel like bursting. I want to join their wild song, to glory in the night, but in my humanity, I find that I can't.
Unleash your instincts, a voice within me whispers. The voice is as seductive as a lover, and just as encouraging. I can't deny the calling.
Without thinking, I throw my head back and let loose with my own song; a song made up of hums and unbridled melodies, of words and sounds alike. The wolves hear my own howl, and mingle it with their night song, until we become a glorious mixture of human and beast and I feel as if our sounds have eaten away at the stars. Even the very moon seems to be shining more brightly because of us.
No, not the moon.
"Toboe! Tsume, Zari, Chanson! Ru-"
My voice is cut off by a stinging in my arm. I look, and I see a single dart protruding from my skin, already pumping me full of sedatives. More shots are fired, and I hear the yelp of my pack mates as they are stung by the darts.
"We've got to…got to…" My words slur as the drugs in my system take effect. I feel myself falling toward the ground, and I hear my name being called, as if from far away.
"I'm glad we found each other again, Leara."
The last thing I see before I go under is Jaxt's face, outlined by the baleful and watchful moon.
AN: Yay, that was fun...though the writer's block I had wasn't fun at all.
You guys know the drill. Comments of any kind are always welcome.