CHAPTER ONE: MEMORIES

A bang came from the classroom across the hallway.

"Sorry!" a voice called, sounding embarrassed. Laura rolled her eyes and went to stand in the doorway with her arms crossed. Inside the ruined classroom, Tessa was on her knees, rubbing her backside, next to an upturned desk that appeared to be the source of the noise.

"You don't have to apologize if you make noise, Tessa. In fact, it would probably be better if you didn't shout apologies across the hallway that are louder than the noise you made in the first place," she said irritably, running a hand through her short brown hair. A low chuckle came from behind her.

"Don't be too hard on her, sis. It's her first raid and she's just being polite," said the young man, still chortling.

"Will, stop patronizing her. She needs to learn to do this properly. What if someone had been here and heard her? Not everyone in this world is as nice as we—" She broke off, sniffing the air with alarm.

A young Asian boy, maybe twelve years old, came barreling around the corner.

"Laura! I smell—" But she was already sprinting down the hallway and towards the side door of the deserted school building. She burst outside onto the football field and froze.

Crouched by the twenty yard line—which was worn away so much that it was barely visible—was a young man. He had strange, dark gray hair that was by no means a sign of age, but seemed very natural. It fell into his eyes that were set in a handsome face that was angled downward toward something on the ground. Her eyes took in his appearance in less than a second before moving to observe the something on the ground in front of the man. She growled when she saw that it was a young girl, maybe nine, and she was dead. What she had smelled before: blood. She continued to snarl viciously as she charged toward this murderer. His head snapped up at the sound and he jumped to his feet, growling in return. Suddenly, his form rippled and a gray wolf stood in his place, clothes lying forgotten on the ground around its paws. She leaped into the air a few yards away from the wolf and, before she could hit the ground, she was a wolf, too, with white and brown fur. She landed on top of him and they turned into a mass of snapping teeth, sharp claws, and snarls. After a few moments they broke apart only to begin circling each other.

They were both bleeding—pretty badly, in fact, as Laura thought with surprise. In her pack, she was the strongest and the best fighter, so she was mildly astonished to find someone who was her equal. They both continued circling until she saw an opening and attacked; he blocked and countered, and they were off again. Suddenly, a lucky hit caused her to go flying thirty yards backward up the field. As she hit the ground with a thud, the impact forced her hold on her wolf form to slip and she was instantly a woman again, only naked this time. She lay there, breathing heavily, and wavering on the edge of consciousness. She must have hit her head because she felt blood pooling underneath her. She dimly heard her friends shout with fear along with two new voices, but she focused her attention through the haze on the man approaching her body. She could tell he was human again by the sounds of only two footsteps. However, with her consciousness slipping even farther into the darkness, she didn't think she would be able to defend herself.

Just then, the image of the body of the little dead girl flashed into her head. But this time, it wasn't the same little girl; it was little Maggie, her sister, who had been killed a year ago by other wolf men who had been wild and desperate with hunger. In less than a second, everything was sharp and clear and, acting on instinct, she kicked upward with all her strength. She heard a grunt as her foot collided with the man's jaw. Eyes snapping open, she leapt to her feet only to be restrained from behind by a pair of arms.

"Let me go!" she screeched. "I have to…He killed…little girl…like Maggie…I won't let him get away with this!"

"I know," Will said soothingly. "It's okay. We'll take care of him. You're injured. You shouldn't fight anymore."

"I don't care!" she screamed, struggling violently. "I have to kill him!" She lifted off the ground, kicking her legs, determined to get free. But he was right about her injuries. The burst of adrenaline that had pulled her from the edge of unconsciousness had run its course and she could feel herself slipping toward the blackness again. She glowered at the subject of her rage as her struggles grew weaker; he seemed to be in the same predicament as she was. Her kick must have affected him because she saw that his eyes were going in and out of focus and he was slumping into the girl holding him back. Just before she lost consciousness, she swore to herself she would kill this man.

*****

She groaned. She hurt all over and wished for unconsciousness again, but awareness was returning despite her best effort to delay it. She groaned again.

"Sis?" said a voice near to her. She blinked blearily, staring up into the dark brown eyes of her brother.

"Will?" she asked, confused, feeling the bandages wrapped around her head and other parts of her body. "What happened?"

"Um…" he said. "Don't freak out—"

Just then, as she glanced around the room, she spotted the strange, gray-haired man sitting up against the wall. She gave a shriek of rage and threw the blanket covering her off only to quickly wrap it back around herself when she realized she was naked. Covered again in the blanket, she jumped to her feet and would have attacked the murderer if not for her brother restricting her as he had yesterday. She growled fiercely at the boy who had not moved except to lift his eyes to watch her struggle. Will spun her around to face him.

"Listen, Laura! You have to listen to me!" he said loudly over her snarls.

"No! You listen to me! He killed that little girl! He murdered her, just like they murdered Maggie, our little sister! Don't you even remember her?" she yelled at him.

He paled considerably.

"Of course I remember Maggie. How could you be so callous as to suggest—"

"Then why aren't you doing anything? You should be with me trying to kill this guy who murdered what could have been precious to someone else," she interrupted angrily.

"Because he didn't kill her!" he shouted.

"How could you be so naive?" she asked. "Of course he fed you a pack of lies to cover up what he did and you just believe him?"

"Yes, I believe him!" he shouted in her face.

She glared at him warily for a full two seconds. He sighed.

"Come on, sis. You know I can tell when people are lying; and they weren't lying. Listen. They were hunting for deer in the forest when Kiba—"

"Oh, so you're already calling him by his first name, are you? I see how it is," she said.

"Shut up," he said through gritted teeth, "and listen to me."

She shut her mouth with a snap of her teeth.

"As I was saying, Kiba caught the scent of blood, just as you did, and went looking for it. When he arrived at the football field, a strange wolf was leaning over the dead child, about to eat her. When it saw Kiba, it ran away. It's just like what happened to Maggie, except for this time it didn't finish the job. We need to be taking precautions in case this wolf comes back; and it could come back with its pack. You may not like this idea, but I think we need to work with Kiba's pack to take care of these things. They're willing to help us, but you're the alpha. It's you're decision; you have to put aside your anger and think rationally. Make the right choice."

She shut her eyes and massaged her temples with her knuckles.

"Crap," she muttered. After a few minutes, she took a deep breath and turned around.

"I'm sorry," she said tersely. "Will you help us?"

Kiba looked at her for a moment.

"Yes," he said.

"Good," she said, and strode off to look for clothes.

*****

They spent the rest of the day scavenging the things left behind in the empty school building and gathering everything into a single room they designated as their sort of "base". The room appeared to be what used to be the cafeteria. A few tables were left still folded up and leaning against two opposite walls of the room. Many of them had fallen over and the blue plastic chairs that had accompanied them were strewn throughout the room. The metal grates that used to block the way to the kitchen had long since been broken through by others who had come foraging for food. One side of the kitchen had fallen in and debris from both the ceiling and the outside littered the entire space. The walls of the main part of the cafeteria were still standing, but the paint was molding and peeling and most of the linoleum floor tiles were either cracked or pulled up altogether.

It was in this room that the two alphas prepared their own packs for the probable upcoming fight. While they were doing this, Laura snuck suspicious glances at Kiba and his pack. He had only two other members besides himself. One was a girl about Will's age who had short, wildly curly, red-orange hair and sparkly hazel eyes, and seemed to be named Beka from what she heard of the conversations between her and Kiba; the other was a child, a little girl of about six, who had short, light brown hair and an oddly cheery demeanor considering the situation, and who painfully reminded Laura of Maggie. From what she observed of the interactions between the little girl and Kiba, she guessed she was his little sister. Laura grimaced, flinching away from the painful memories, and returned to her task of organizing the provisions they had collected.

When she finally finished, she sighed and steeled herself for what she had to do next. She turned around and stomped up to Kiba who was rummaging through a backpack he had brought with him from wherever he came from.

"We need to talk over strategy," she said bluntly.

He paused and turned to her.

"Okay," he said.

She was taken aback. She thought he would refuse to speak to her and she would end up having to yell at him or coerce him or whatever. On the contrary, he put the backpack down and gave her his full attention.

"Oh," she said, still stunned. "Right. Okay. Well."

They discussed strategies for half an hour before finally reaching what they both agreed was the best way to do things. The conversation was awkward at best, but they shared similar ideas. When they finished, they each went and explained things to their own pack and settled down for the night, taking turns on watch.

At one point in the night, Laura woke up to take over for Kiba only to find he wasn't there. She sat up absolutely bristling from the anger of being betrayed before she saw Beka sitting in the corner watching her. Laura got up and crossed the room to her.

"What's wrong?" she asked. Close up, she noticed the worry on Beka's face.

"Kiba smelled something strange. He went to check it out. He told me to tell you when you woke up that he thinks you should wake your pack just in case, but that it's your decision," she said.

She considered for a moment, smelling what Kiba had smelled on the air.

"I think I'll let them sleep a little more. Whatever it is smells pretty far away. I'll get them up if it gets closer," she decided.

Beka grinned.

"That's what I thought, too, but he told me to tell you anyway. He's just way too protective is all. He told me I'm to take Karin and run if anything attacks while he's away. Like she even needs to be protected." She rolled her eyes. "She's a pretty damn feisty six-year-old, if I do say so myself."

Laura laughed quietly and sat down next to her.

"How long have you been with Kiba?" she asked.

"Oh, forever. I've known him since we were both kids, but he took me in only about five years ago when my parents were killed by these really wild wolves." She shuddered. "It was terrifying. I was only thirteen. Of course, he's only a year older than me, but he's always been too mature for his age. I don't think he's changed at all since then," she said.

Laura did the mental math in her head.

"So, he's nineteen?"

"Yeah. Nineteen going on fifty," Beka joked.

She laughed.

"That would make Karin only a year old when your parents died," she said.

"Yeah. His father died when he was two, I think, and his mother died giving birth to Karin. He's taken care of Karin since that time. It's no wonder he's so paternal towards her."

"I can see that," said Laura, thinking. Only thirteen and he was already without parents and raising a child. She had been taught since birth to lead a pack, but it wasn't until two years ago that her parents had been killed in a storm and she was left with a pack to lead. And then only a year ago she had lost her sister to that one wild wolf…

Just then, she inhaled and realized the strange smell had gotten so close while they were talking, it was just outside the school.

"Shoot!" she exclaimed, jumping to her feet.

"What…Oh!" said Beka, sniffing for herself.

Suddenly, Kiba burst into the room, swiftly changing from his wolf form back to a human.

"Hurry! Get them up!" he said sharply, crossing the room to Karin in four giant strides.

She rushed over to Will first and gently shook him awake. From the look on her face, he immediately jumped into action, helping get Ryosuke up while she woke Tessa.

"It's time," they each told the other two.

*****

The wild ones came in, ten in all, snarling and snapping their teeth in crazed, hunger-induced rage. What they met were seven, fully-prepared wolves that attacked the second the first of the wild ones came into the room. The most ferocious, and the most skilled, were the white and brown one that seemed to be taking this fight as a personal battle and the one with the strange gray fur. They both took down their first opponents immediately, quickly snapping their necks, and moving onto the next enemies.

The others didn't do as well. Their opponents got in a few hits and they danced around each other for a while before finally they defeated their enemies. One was even less lucky than that.

"Tessa!" Laura howled, seeing Tessa's body thrown across the room. Instantaneously, she flung her opponent to the ground and was halfway to Tessa's unconscious body before her opponent caught up with her. He grabbed her right hind leg and pulled her to the floor with a thud as she watched Tessa's foe slowly stalk toward the prone figure on the floor.

"Get off me!" she growled desperately, and kicked out with her free leg only to have the wild one bite harder into her leg, breaking the skin. She wailed in pain and struggled fiercely, trying to break free. Instead, he broke her leg; she let out a piercing howl that echoed around the room.

Just then, she heard a horrible growling and a tearing sound, and her leg was released. Kiba blew past her after having ripped the other wolf's head off and sprinted toward the wild wolf that was inches away from sinking his fangs into Tessa. In a second, it was dead and Kiba was gently pawing Tessa in the side of the head, trying to wake her. After a few pats, she came to with a start. She looked up at him and scrambled to her feet, looking embarrassed. With a nod from him, she rejoined the fight.

After a long and painful fight—especially for Laura because she continued to fight with her broken leg—the wild wolves were entirely defeated. The few that managed to escape were long gone, never to come back. They had all phased back into humans and were working on bandaging up their wounds when Laura limped over to Tessa. Tessa's nose was broken; she could tell because of the dark purple bruises showing up around her blue-green eyes. She could see a few other bruises spread out around the parts of her petite body that were showing around her clothes, and her strawberry blonde hair was matted with sweat and dirt, but otherwise she looked okay. Ignoring her leg which was in a make-shift brace, she stomped her foot.

"How could you be so stupid?" Laura yelled at her. Tessa looked up from tending Ryosuke's wounds, surprised.

"You let your guard down, like you always do! You're so ditzy and careless! You never pay attention!" she yelled.

"Laura," Kiba said from right behind her, startling her. She spun around, tears in her eyes.

"What!" she yelled. "If you're going to tell me how to lead my pack, don't! It's none of your business! I can't have them getting themselves killed out of my stupidity! I have to protect them! I have to! They're my responsibility and I can't let them die! Tessa!" She turned back to Tessa, tears running down her face. She fell to her knees in front of her and threw her arms around her.

"I couldn't handle it if someone else dies," she mumbled into Tessa's shoulder. "I'm so sorry, Tess. I'm so sorry."

Still looking mildly shocked, Tessa wrapped her arms around her and held her back while she cried. Kiba watched them for a few minutes, frowning slightly as Laura's sobs calmed, before turning away.

"Wait," Laura called. She stood to face him, hastily wiping off her face.

"I'm sorry for trying to kill you before and for not believing in your honesty. I shouldn't have just assumed the worst. And thank you, so much, for saving Tessa and me. I really, truly appreciate it," she said, blushing from embarrassment. She cleared her throat. "And, I was wondering if you wanted to join our pack. Well, not exactly join, but more like combine our packs, I guess is the correct way to say it. We would still be the alphas of our own group, but we could travel together and live together. You don't have to decide now. It's just an idea. I just thought that maybe you could consider it…and…yeah," she trailed off.

He regarded her with an unfathomable expression for a moment while she stared at the ground, fidgeting.

"Okay," he said.

She looked up at him.

"Okay, you'll consider it, or okay, you want to combine our packs?" she asked, slightly irritated at his one word answer.

"Okay, let's combine packs," he said, the corners of his mouth twitching.

"Oh. Great," she said, again slightly taken aback by his bluntness.

He nodded at her and went over to Karin, crouching beside her and checking her wounds. She stayed there watching him with a light blush on her face until she shook herself and went to see how Will was doing.