I could smell buck.
A strong wind whipped through the woods, sending flurries of snow cascading through the pitch black night air. It carried on it more scents than even my wolf nose could sort through, but I zeroed in on the one I was looking for. A buck, big and strong, that had passed through here less than half an hour ago. My stomach growled. I had skipped having dinner with the rest of the pack after the crappy day I'd had at school, knowing that nothing could ease my nerves better than a good hunt.
I may not be able to kill Mr. Wrogan, Ed, Victor, or Hendricks, but I could kill that deer!
I took off through the trees, sprinting between them like a bolt of brown lightning. The buck's scent burned like fire in my nose, and my blood burned in my veins. Life sucked, and I desperately needed to take my anger out on someone. This buck had wandered inside Stark's protective wards against Becky, giving me the perfect opportunity to vent some frustration. Tonight, I didn't want to be weak, helpless Amber. I wanted to be a wild animal, a wolf, queen of the forest.
With my breath fogging the cold air in front of me and my tongue lolling out the side of my mouth, I tramped through the shin-deep snow, kicking it up into the air behind me with every step. It occurred to me, not for the first time, how much simpler life would be if I were to give up on my human life and just be a wolf. No school, no responsibilities, nothing to worry about except finding food to fill my own belly. Despite how much my wolf side loved the idea, in the back of my head I knew I could never do it. Mom and Kimberly were still back in the human world, and it wasn't like my problems would just disappear if I spent the rest of my life on four feet. That wouldn't stop Majestic from kidnapping me and turning me into a pincushion, and one way or another I was going to have to deal with Becky eventually— that is, unless the queen of the forest only wanted her domain to stretch over a couple of acres. I growled at myself, like that would cow my human side into submission. Even if I couldn't really do it, at least I could pretend for a while.
I skidded to a stop, throwing up a wave of snow, and sniffed the air again. The buck had gone... that way! I launched myself into motion again, and howled to the moon in exhilaration. I came to the top of a small hill and spotted my prey. The stupid deer had its head down, drinking from a hole in the frozen creek, but it looked up and spun around as soon as I spotted it. It jumped, obviously not accustomed to seeing wolves in this neck of the woods, and then bolted.
It was too slow.
I pounced in a blur of fur, teeth, and claws. The deer made it a whole fifteen steps before I caught up to it, sinking my jaws into its neck and dragging it to the ground. It kicked and threw its antlers around, but it didn't matter because I'd already severed its vein. All I had to do now was help it die faster. Less than a minute later, its head fell to the ground and its last breath escaped from its lungs. I gave the corpse a feral, bloodsoaked grin, the most human I would allow myself to be tonight, and then opened my mouth and—
Before I could dig in, another howl broke the peaceful silence of the night, and I looked up to see a great grey wolf standing on top of the hill I had just been on. My first impulse was the growl at him and defend my kill, but then his scent reached my nose and I immediately backed down. Stark bounded down the hill, spry despite his age, and examined my buck. He gave an approving nod, a very human thing to do, and stepped back to let me eat. I looked at him, puzzled, and for the first time I noticed that he had a bundle of clothes clamped in his jaws, so he couldn't eat. With his permission, I finally gave in to my hunger and tore into the dead animal.
Don't forget, the prey inside me said as I ate, we're mad at him.
No, not mad, I growled back at it. He alpha.
He caused all this! Everything we're going through is because of him!
He alpha! I stubbornly insisted, chewing a piece of the deer's intestine. He... do whatever he... want.
I'll admit, human speech isn't my strong suit. Usually my prey side and I can communicate with feelings, but when I need to make a stronger point than that, it can be difficult. The fact that I was arguing with prey at all made my fur stand on end.
A few minutes later, when I'd eaten my fill, I glanced at Stark again. He gestured towards the creek with his nose, and so I padded over to the same hole the buck had made in the ice and dipped my face into the water. The water was frigid, but I used it to wash the blood off my snout, and then rubbed it over the rest of me until my fur was clean. Well, cleaner than it was before. After shaking myself dry, I went back to Stark, who set the clothes he was carrying down in the snow. I looked down at them, and then back up at him, and a whine escaped my throat when I realized what he wanted.
Stark barked softly, and nosed the clothes closer to me. Reluctantly, I bowed my head in submission. He turned his back on me, which I thought was far too human a thing for either of us to be worried about, and I... I gave up on my night of running wild and free, and let the prey push me down deep inside of it, where all I could do was snarl and growl but not bite, and became human again.
Holy crap! I thought as soon as my last strand of fur vanished. It's freaking cold out here!
I didn't waste any time in grabbing the clothes Stark had brought me and putting them on. He'd brought me everything I needed, pants, shirt, socks, and boots, all wrapped up in my coat. Thank God it was waterproof. After zipping it all the way up to my chin, I turned to see that Stark had already shifted back and was just getting finished dressing himself too.
"Evening, Amber," he greeted me, trying to sound lighthearted and failing.
"Hey," I returned the greeting. What I really wanted to say was, "What do you want?", but I wasn't quite brave enough to show that kind of disrespect to my alpha, no matter how pissed off I was.
A cold wind blew through the woods, and I raised my hood against it. My wolf may have loved being out in this kind of weather, but if I didn't have a fur coat and a rabid urge to eat fresh meat, I'd rather be in my room, wrapped up in a hundred blankets.
"That's quite a catch," Stark said, looking at me deer. "I know wolves older than you who still need to work as a team to take down a buck like that."
A flutter of pride warmed my chest for a second, but I pressed it down. I refused to accept compliments from the guy who’d killed my dad.
Stark held his hands in surrender. "I know you don't want to talk to me, and I don't blame you. If I could, I'd leave you alone and let you hate me. But this is something important, so we're both going to have to put aside our feelings and be adults, got it?"
I sighed and crossed my arms. "What is it that's so important?"
"You are, Amber," he answered, pointing at me.
I'll admit, I wasn't expecting that one.
"You've been put in danger way too many times for my liking. A few nights ago, I promised you I'd never let that happen again. Well," he shrugged, "there may come day when I'm not able to keep that promise. There is something I can do, though. I can teach you to fight."
My eyes opened a little wider, but I couldn't think of anything to say. Why was I so surprised? I mean, I honestly should have been expecting it at this point.
Stark pointed at the dead buck now, its innards still steaming in the cold air. "You've done an exceptional job teaching yourself, but that's not going to be enough anymore. We've got bigger enemies than whitetailed deer running around these days, and you don't stand a chance against them as you are now."
"Like Becky," I said in a low voice. "And Hendricks."
Stark nodded. "Not to mention the Slayers, if they ever show up again, and maybe even Majestic themselves. Trust me, Amber, the last thing I want is to see you get hurt, or worse. I fully acknowledge and accept my part in screwing up your life, and all I want to do is keep it from getting screwed up even more. That's why I brought you, your mom, and Kimberly here, but if that wasn't enough to keep you safe then I'm ready to take the next step and teach you to defend yourself."
I took a deep breath and let it out as a cloud of fog.
"And what if I say no?" I finally asked.
Stark arched his eyebrow. "Why would you say no?" I hesitated for a second, and Stark used that as an opportunity to keep talking, "Because of some stubborn rebellious streak you refuse to let go of? So you can teach me a lesson in return for everything I've done to you?"
My face burned red, and I looked away to keep him from seeing the embarrassment in my eyes.
"Don't you care about Kimberly, Amber? About your own mother?"
My face burned even hotter, making me a little dizzy, and I tightened my grip on my forearms. He was trying to make me mad. He just wanted a reaction. Well, I wasn't going to give him one!
"If I'm ever not here to take care of them, that job will fall to you, Amber. The world is a dangerous place for creatures like us. I could die tomorrow. Hell, I could die before we even get back to the cabin." He took a step closer to me, his hands balled into fists. "If that happened, would you be able to take care of them, Amber? Would you be able to keep them safe?"
I stood up as tall as I could as Stark drew nearer, but I was still a good three inches shorter than him. His words were hitting me exactly where he knew they would, and I could feel my emotions rising up inside me, but I faced my alpha down all the same, hoping he wouldn't see how my lip was trembling.
He came to a stop less than a foot away from me. "If you really loved them, you would do anything it took to protect them, anything at all. Do you love your mother, Amber?"
He finally stopped, fog blowing out of his nostrils as he snorted like an angry bull, and waited for a reply.
"Yes," I him in a small, timid voice.
"What about Kimberly? Do you care about her?"
Stark raised his hand, and I flinched, reacting instinctively to repressed memories of my time in the Swag Pag. Instead of hitting me, though, he began poking me in the chest with every word he spoke. It didn't hurt, but he wasn't being gentle with it either.
"Then you had better grow up, you had better put aside your grudges, and you had better start thinking about them instead of thinking about yourself. I don't care if you hate me, but one thing I do care about is when members of my pack are acting petty and childish, and putting other people in danger because of it."
"Okay, okay," I said, pushing away his hand. "Fine."
Stark's gaze turned a little darker. "That's not good enough, Amber. You can't go into this halfhearted. You have to do this because you want to, not because you're being forced to."
"I said, fine!"
"It can't be them. Your mother's not strong like we are, and Kimberly's just a child. It has to be you, Amber. If I'm not here, you're the only one who can protect them. Without you, they'll be dead. Dead, Amber, and there'll be nothing you can do about it. No second chances when you're playing with somebody's life. Do you understand that?"
"Yes, I understand. Okay?"
He nodded gravely. "Good. Then I want you to think long and hard. Do you really want to do this? You know I don't impose my will over you like other alphas. If you don't want me to teach you how to fight, I'll accept that. I'll leave you alone out here to hunt deer and rabbits until you explode, and I'll never mention it again. But," he pointed a threatening finger at me, "if you say yes, then I expect you to act like you said yes. No muttering, no complaining, no rebelling. You'll put aside whatever you feel for me, and do everything I tell you so that, someday, you'll be able to keep the people you love safe."
He backed away a few steps, giving me some space to think. What was there to think about, though? He was acting like I hated Mom and Kimberly just because I held him responsible for killing my dad. That wasn't wrong, was it? I looked down at the buck, torn open and lying in a pool of its own blood, slowly melting the snow with its remaining body heat. I imagined Mom lying there in its place, and then Kimberly. But Stark murdered my dad in cold blood! Everything that was wrong with my life was because of him! I... I wasn't really being selfish...
Despite myself, I felt tears stinging my eyes when I looked up at Stark again, standing before me as immovable as a mountain.
"All right," I finally said, my voice a humiliated whisper, "I'll do it. Teach me how to fight."
Stark nodded his approval. "Thank you, Amber. Get back to the cabin and get some sleep. You've got a lot of work to do tomorrow."
NEXT TIME: Amber’s going to be learning to fight under Stark. You know what this means, right? POP MUSIC TRAINING MONTAGES! *jogs away humming Rocky theme*