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Oo0oO

Sam

Sam had been alone for a long time. She wasn’t always lonely, but sometimes the night got to her more than usual. Sometimes she thought of home more than she would have liked.

For Sam, home had never been a place. It was people. It was her family. Once upon a time, it was her biological one. Or, part of it at least. Once upon a time, it was just the two of them. Sam, and her mother.

Her father was somewhere. Anywhere. Her parents had parted on friendly terms hardly a year after her birth. It was nothing unusual. After all, they’d met only a few months before, in passing. And when days in passing became months, around came Sam.

She supposed it was inevitable it didn’t last between the two of them. They were loners, the two of them; it was hard to stay in one place for more than a couple of weeks, for them to tie themselves to the forest like the packs. And without the numbers, the security of the pack, it was simply safer on the run. Never letting your roots touch down, never getting too involved. From a pack wolf’s perspective, it was a damning existence. Out in the woods, without any true home or the typical alpha/beta dynamics of the packs…it was maddening. Most wolves, turned or not, couldn’t handle it for more than a few months at best.

But it was the only life Sam had ever known. And, at least at first, she wasn’t alone. It was her and her mother, the two of them loners together. Away from the influence of the packs, far beyond the reaches of human society, Sam’s mother raised her.

It was difficult at first, Sam gleaned as much from her mother’s tales of the early years. To raise a young child in these woods without the protection of a pack was foolish at best, a death wish for both mother and child at worst. On numerous occasions, especially during the winters, her mother almost did join. But they always found a way. By luck or sheer willpower, they survived.

And then Sam was old enough to hunt, and the worst of it had passed. She asked her mother many times why she hadn’t joined a pack during those early years, why she would choose to stake both their lives on the mercy of the wilderness, rather than relent and join the packs. No matter how she asked it, Sam never got a clear answer. It was something to do with an old grudge her mother held against the packs. An old clan war, some ancient rivalry that brewed from “too many hot-blooded wolves in one place.” Someone had died, apparently. Someone close to her. And ever since, her mother had avoided the packs like wildfire.

Still, Sam couldn’t understand her mother’s aversion. Perhaps on account of her mother’s vagueness, she never grew to despise the idea. In fact, growing up on stories of the packs and brief encounters in passing, Sam began to grow fascinated with them. She dreamed of what life must have been like in the larger packs; those 20, 30 strong. Sam wasn’t even sure she’d seen even half that many wolves all together at once. Most of their encounters were with scouting parties, directing Sam and her mother through territories or spooking them off of it. Occasionally there were respites with other loners, but even that was only one, maybe two other half-wolves at a time. The thought of being constantly surrounded by so many others…

Despite her mother’s feelings, Sam dared to wonder what it must be like. In the snow she play-wrestled with imaginary siblings, scaled fallen trees with imagined mentors and fictional companions. She daydreamed her way through her life in a pack, her journey through the ranks from omega toward beta, and eventually alpha. She was sure, somehow, that she’d make a good one. She even told her mother as much, boasting her skills from a slanted rock that one might have called a dais, had she known the word.

Her mother snorted playfully at her, remarking that she’d never known an alpha with such poor hunting skills. Or small stature. Sam, at least at the time, didn’t see it as as big of a problem as her mother. She had years to learn about all of that. And then, she thought, as soon as she was old enough she’d join. Finally, she’d have a home. She’d have a title, a rank. Something real, something permanent.

And most importantly, she’d have a family. At least, a family bigger than two. Maybe when she made alpha, she’d even convince her mom to join. Maybe, she thought, all of the play-worlds she imagined wandering through the woods as a child weren’t so out of reach after all.

Oo0oO

In the beginning, Sam thought often of home. That is, her first home, the shelters built haphazardly in the night or nestled into during storms, the ones she carved with her mother, during their years on the run. She thought often of hunting in the quiet of the woods, her mother’s watchful eyes on her as she made her first kill. Despite her daydreams, for the most part it wasn’t a bad life. When things were good, when they were out of reach of the packs and food was plentiful, it was peaceful. Despite its often unforgiving nature, nothing could ever quite match the quiet of the forest at night. Even as she longed to escape it, the life of a loner wasn’t always bad.

And then came the storm. As with all things, too early, too violent; a sudden and messy thing that drenched the landscape and tore through woods like hungry beast. Sam was barely thirteen when it happened. She was just beginning to master the hunt, learning the more fine details of how her mother moved through the trees, swift and silent like the breeze. Just a few years from making her dream of going off on her own, of finding a pack, a reality. She was so close. And then, the storm hit.

They didn’t know the landscape well. They’d been passing through, barely arrived in the area when the storm hit. There had been no time to scout the area, and the wind and rain left them hardly any room to do so then. Buffeted by wet, hungry gusts of air, they stumbled blindly through the forest. The turmoil was enough to wipe out their senses almost completely, the sound of collapsing trees and crumbling hillsides mixing together with the heavy sound of water pounding across the landscape, the wind streaking like a banshee across their coats and past their ears.

Neither of them heard the sound of the river until it was too late. And suddenly they were falling. And suddenly they were drowning.

Oo0oO

Sam had been taught how to swim long ago by her mother. She was young, agile, and even in the turbulence, she managed to keep her head above water. Battered around like a rock tumbling over a hillside, she managed regardless to keep swimming. Her lungs ached from gasping, from being plunged again and again under the roaring waters. Her muscles strained, legs struggling to find purchase, occasionally catching on the bank or shallower ground, only to be swept out from under her moments later by the sweeping flow. Desperation and instinct kept her alive, a fight in her soul she wasn’t aware she had pumping her forward despite the pain. You will live through this. Even in the roaring turmoil of the storm, it was dead calm. You will survive this.

And she did. And she was the only one.

Oo0oO

She buried her mother beneath a fir tree, in a quiet grove far beyond the river’s reach. For days Sam stood over her mother’s grave, a bastion in silent vigilance, unable to bring herself to leave her side.

Before, loss had been nothing more than a concept to Sam. It was an idea, foreign to her even as she thought she understood its basic premise. Passing, after all, was steeped in death, and the forest was full of it. But loss is something personal. Loss is a death that takes someone and then takes you with it.

When Sam lost her mother, she lost a part of herself. How couldn’t she? Her mother was everything to her, everything she had. Her mother was her family, her mentor, her friend. Her mother was her safe place, her calm in the storm. Her mother was her home. In her absence, it was Sam and the forest. For the first time in her life, she was honestly, truly alone.

When her mother left, she took a part of Sam with her. It left a hole in her somewhere, a hole that felt as tangible and real to Sam as being. So she did the only thing she could, she tried to fill it.

Out of necessity almost more than want, she found a pack. Stumbled into their lives, begging for refuge. She thought being around others would help, would fill the hole. But pack life wasn’t what she thought it was.

She came in as an outsider, lost and broken, still a kid, but falling apart at the seams. They couldn’t well turn her away. But they never really accepted her either. Sure, she was given a rank, given tasks, taught the ways of the pack. But she wasn’t family to them. She was a charity case.

Eventually she couldn’t take it. She was there only a few weeks before she realized it. And then she flung herself back into the wilderness, to the trees and the silence and the life of a loner.

But just like that the silence of the forest lost its comfort. Because it was too much, because the silence she grew accustomed to was never really silence. Silence was the muted footfalls of her mother’s next to hers, the whoosh of her tail and the twitch of her ears. Silence was her breath, calm and steady like the rise and fall of the ocean. Silence was the lullabies she hummed every night as Sam fell asleep, the ones she pretended to hate but secretly revered. Silence was her laughter, her stories, her watchful eye. All of her silence was stolen away with the wind and the river.

And what was left was earth-shattering. What was left was the quiet. It was the gap between breaths, the echo of emptiness. It was suddenly all there and it was all suddenly too much. Too much and not enough.

It was driving her mad.

Oo0oO

She was looking for noise. For something loud, for clamor enough to make her ears bleed and her lungs pound. So, Sam fled to the loudest place she could think of. The city.

She’d been there once before, with her mother. Learned how to walk and talk like humans, learned their systems, their rules. At the time, it was all too much for Sam. The streets too noisy, their society too complicated. But after her mother’s death, after that loss…somehow it was what she needed.

Being around people was right as wrong as it was. The thrum of their energy, their motion distracted her from the ache. Everything about them was fast, their cities and the people in it always somehow in constant motion. And it was better than the silence.

Slowly, slowly, Sam learned how to be human. She learned their systems, their speech, and their rules both spoken and unspoken. She learned that her age was a problem, but only if she admitted to being alone and only if she didn’t have money. She found her away around both. Lived life with a foot in both the forest and the city. The woods kept her fed, gave her shelter. The city kept her sane.

Her home was impermanent. Her home was the line between worlds, between wolf and human. It was a line she had never considered before. Traveling with her mother, and in her brief time with the pack, she had spent most of her time in wolf form. She considered herself - first, foremost, and lastly - a wolf. The fact that she could turn into a human was merely a convenient coincidence.

But living on the edge of both lives, Sam learned to appreciate both. Because she wasn’t a wolf. She may have been raised like one, but it wasn’t the end of her story. And she certainly wasn’t a human. She was both and neither. She was a half-wolf.

And more than that, living between the city and the woods taught her something else. They taught her who she was without her mother. When she died, her loss hit Sam hard. When she died, she took a part of Sam with her, undeniably. But not all of her. And slowly, Sam learned to understand the parts of her that were left.

She had her mother in her, certainly. She had her coat for one, golden and sleek. Her patience, her will, certainly. And of course, her skills, the methods of hunting and fighting and surviving that Sam carried in her every movement. But Sam was more than that. She had her father’s eyes, hazel and daring. She had his charm, out of practice as she was with its use. And she had his heart. His love for her mother and the wilderness despite everything.

But as Sam grew in-between both worlds, she learned that she was also more than the both of them, than the sum of their parts. Despite everything, she was exceedingly kind, considerate. As broken and lonely as her past and present were, they were her burdens to bare. As others in need crossed her path, other half-wolves and drifters in need of help, she reached out to them. She was a diligent, hard-working, a natural byproduct of growing up between worlds but also a byproduct of who she was as a person. And, of course, she was a dreamer. Always had been.

After about a year of living a life between, Sam moved on.

Oo0oO

For the next several years, Sam spent her life traveling. A loner once more, alone again in the expanse of the forest. But she wasn’t plagued by the same loneliness from before. She knew who she was, the person her mother had raised and the person into whom she had made herself. And while she loved her mother, and missed her dearly, she would survive without her.

For years she wandered in and out of packs, in and out of cities, back and forth across the line that divided wolves and humans. But she wasn’t always moving. Occasionally she found places that felt right, packs or residences that could’ve been home. In packs, she refined her skills, learned what it meant to be a part of something bigger, learned how to fight for it. In the places she did pause, she made higher ranks without much difficulty - much to other, especially male half-wolves’ displeasure. Among humans, she refined herself, learned who she was and what she wanted. Although for many years it was vague, the shadow of a full idea, eventually she landed near a conclusion:

She wanted a pack. One that felt right, one that she could truly call her own. A family.

Initially, she hadn’t intended to start her own. She’d been looking for one that felt right, with the right people, the right mentality. She was in-between when she found him. A half-wolf, about her age. Half-dead and half-buried in the falling snow. His fur was coal black, matted with blood. His leg was broken, angry wounds crossing his flesh and desperation clinging to his form. He was going to die there. He should have died there. Any sane half-wolf would have left him. The scent of his blood would attract a scene. A fresh corpse in this winter was bound to. And then, even if she could steal away with him, move him somewhere safe, he was in bad condition. There was no guarantee he’d survive.

But she tried anyways. Slowly, carefully, she moved his body. She used snow to cover the blood, burned bark and low-hanging leaves to mask the scent. With difficulty, she gradually moved his body into shelter, a cave low to the ground and barely tall enough to stand in. But it would do. There, she nursed the young half-wolf back to health.

It was a slow process. The surface wounds were easy enough to address, bandaging coupled with regular cleaning made them manageable at least. A deeper wound near his back left side was more difficult. While not deep, the cuts there were long, the whole area bruised like it had taken a heavy impact. Slowing their bleeding was a challenge that took lots of bandages and a lot of luck, but eventually she succeeded. She made frequent runs to human cities during the process, using the few dollars she had on her and pan-handling the rest to get the meds and supplies he needed. But eventually she got him in stable condition.

However, nursing him back to health would be a much longer, slower process. For weeks he slipped in and out of consciousness, delirious with pain. She did what she could to settle him, address his aches, but she knew it would take time. In the meantime, she hunted. The winter was long and cold, food was few and far-between, especially when she was hunting for two. But she had been through worse. She knew how to survive this.

And she did. And they did.

Slowly, slowly, she brought the young half-wolf back from the brink of death. She spoke to him once she was sure he was all there, told him the details of their situation, asked for his name. However, her questioned were met with silence. Physically, it seemed, he was there. But mentally…

Sam knew he could hear her, understand her. Although faint, there was the slightest hint of recognition when she spoke, an acknowledgement of her demands. But he was disconnected from her too it seemed. Like his mind was somewhere else, grappling with something far larger than her. She acknowledged this, and didn’t push. Instead, she gave him her name, told him she would watch over him. Although it was the slightest of changes, she could tell he heard her. And it was a start. It was enough.

Oo0oO

For months, they lived like that. In one-way conversations, in and out of consciousness, in a small cave just barely big enough to host the two of them.

Slowly. Slowly. Slowly. Slowly, she nursed him back to health. Set his leg, stitched his wound, forced herbs and human meds down his throat.

Slowly. Slowly. Slowly she got him to eat. It was hardly more than roots at first, anything even close to the smell of meat sent him dry-heaving. But eventually, he was eating scraps again. Skin then breast then thigh then straight from the bone.

Slowly. Slowly she got him to move. He hardly left the mouth of the cave but it was something. And she was proud of him for even that.

Slowly. After months of silence, she got him to speak.

“Josh.” His voice was steady, although hardly above a whisper. “My name is Josh.”

Oo0oO

For months, it was just the two of them. It was quiet existence at first, a period of recovery and building trust. But it was comfortable, it felt right.

As the winter passed, they moved from their cave into a secluded clearing, building a den in the space between low-hanging branches. Gradually, gradually, they grew to trust each other. Shared their stories, their pasts. Sam shared her past as a loner, her time traveling with her mom and her time living between the city and the forest. She spoke of her time living with the packs, the months and months she spent trying to find her own. She spoke of how rank came almost naturally to her, how strength and will were all she ever knew growing up outside the packs. How fighting for those she cared about had never really been a question. It was simply who she was.

Gradually, much more so than her, Josh shared his own past as well. He spoke of his family, his past, of his life spent as the omega. He envied her as much as she envied him, almost convinced if he had grown up outside the packs he would have been ‘strong like she was.’

Sam had laughed at that, though politely.

“Strength is a state of mind.” She admittedly, candidly. “And even the strongest have times when they falter.”

Slowly, gradually, Josh grew to believe her, to trust her. Nearing eight months after they first met, Josh told her the whole story. About his family, about their deaths. About how it was all his fault. He hadn’t intended to wait as long as he did. But it was the first time he was certain he could tell the story while still holding himself together.

Sam consoled him. Told him it wasn’t his fault. He insisted it was. She insisted it wasn’t. And she told him every day. It’s not your fault. You didn’t cause this. You’re worth so much Josh.

It took time, but eventually her words started to sink in. Eventually, he started to believe them.

Oo0oO

It was autumn when they returned to the place where his family died. Their remains were long gone, scavengers and the elements doing their part to wipe away the traces of what happened there. Now, all that was left were the memories. Besides the clearing they placed four stones in a line, each the size of a soccer ball. One for his mother, for his father, one for each of his two sisters. A makeshift grave for their final resting place. Josh broke down as he looked upon them all. He cried, let himself feel all of the hurt he’d been only half-addressing for so long. And it hurt, and it hurt. But it was good. It needed to.

Eventually he steadied himself. He could still feel the ache, but it was better. He could do this.

In human form, he and Sam threw open the doors to the lodge. It was dark, musty. There were signs of passing wildlife, creatures perhaps temporarily or permanently calling the cabin home during the past months. But even so, it was sturdy. It was there’s’.

They spent months cleaning it up, repairing what was broken and putting everything back together. Sam even got a temporary job to cover some of the costs. By the time the frosts rolled around, everything came into place. It was there’s. It was home.

Oo0oO

It was only a few weeks later when Matt rolled around. He was still somewhat recently turned, mottled dark-brown fur and dark eyes, naturally a low-ranking wolf and clearly insecure about it. He was looking for a pack. When he stumbled across the two of them, he laughed.

“You’ve gotta be kidding.”

Sam couldn’t blame him. While her and Josh were close, they were still hardly more than strays. And as far as power dynamics went, they couldn’t be more different.

“We’re serious.” Her tone was firm but friendly. “And this is our pack.”

“But it’s just the two of you. And you’re…” He glanced the two of them up and down.

Sam raised an eyebrow. “We’re…?”

“Kids? Crazy? Both really.” His tone was incredulous. “And you-” He looked to Sam. “You’re supposed to be the alpha? But you’re…”

She knew what he was trying to say. But you’re a girl.

She didn’t blame him. During her journeys through the packs, she’d seen the general disdain toward female alphas, towards she-wolves with that sort of presence, that sort of power. In some of her late packs, she’d grown accustomed to that scorn, the contempt that accompanied her taking higher ranks. It was an old and misguided principle, that association of masculinity and power. In her own experience, it was heart that mattered most.

Sam laughed. “I get that a lot.”

Like it was no big deal.

Because it wasn’t, although she could tell it was to him. If it mattered to him, if it really mattered, he would leave. Or he would challenge her. And either way she would get her answer.

She left his invitation open-ended. Let him join or deny at his leisure. Sam could tell it bothered him. Her being the alpha, his rank, the whole system in general. But he was looking for a home. And with nowhere else to go, he eventually found one with them.

Oo0oO

It was about a week later that another half-wolf stumbled into their lives, when Josh and Chris quite literally ran into each other in the woods near the lodge. He was a large wolf, with a thick golden pelt and bright blue eyes. Like Matt, it was clear he was on the run from his own demons. However, Sam quickly discovered, all of Chris’s demons were related to him.

Likewise looking for a pack, and clearly amused at Sam’s growing collection of strays, Chris was quick to join. And, after a rather brief discussion of the matter, he comfortably slid into 2nd rank under Sam, the pack’s first official beta. With Matt taking 3rd rank and Josh omega, for the first time, they were starting to look like a pack.

Oo0oO

A few weeks later, they found Ashley in the woods. Russet-red fur stained with blood, green eyes wide and panicked. She had been jumped by a group of she-wolves, whose scent haunted the outskirts of the mountain Sam’s group had set up on. It had been a bloody encounter, but between Sam and Chris they had been able to fend off the group without taking any serious injuries.

Together, they hauled Ashley back to the lodge, bandaged her wounds and brought her up to speed. She was freshly turned, not even a month into being a half-wolf, and clearly carrying some heavy resentment by it. It made Josh and Chris nervous, both separately approaching Sam on the topic of whether it was safe to keep her around. Sam assured them it was. And while it took time for Ashley to fully adjust, as well as begin to address a few demons of her own, eventually she fit right in, taking 3rd rank between Chris and Matt, now pushed to 4th.

Oo0oO

It was only days later when they found Mike, a large black wolf with piercing yellow eyes. Mistaking his natural dominance for rank, Chris and Matt brought him to Sam thinking he was the alpha of the pack that attacked Ashley. It didn’t take long for the truth to come out: he was a loner, just like the rest of them. Once the misunderstanding had cleared, Sam extended her usual offer. After all, with his youth and his headstrong personality, he was just their pack’s type.

Initially, he refused.  It wasn’t hard for Sam to fathom why. He was looking for his own pack, one to lead as an alpha. And he seemed to respect hers, and despite all his dominance Mike wasn’t looking to fight her for control of it. But even as he refused, she encouraged him to stick around. And he did. He had intended for it to be a few days at most. Then days turned into weeks. Then a month.

After a time, Sam made her offer again. For his strength, for his natural dominance, Mike was offered 2nd rank, to be beta under Sam. Chris didn’t seem to mind the demotion, for the most part no one did. This time, Mike said yes.

Oo0oO

About a month and a half later, Matt crossed paths with Emily in the woods, a half-wolf with jet black fur and dark eyes. Like Mike, Emily was terrifying in her own right, raised in a cutthroat pack that valued fighting prowess and strength above all else. As far as first impressions went, it was clear Emily had mixed feelings about Sam’s pack. Although she had left to escape a life of fighting, she still carried it with her, the idea that rank and power determined one’s worth. It was Sam who snapped her out of it, taught her about what power really meant, and why they bothered with it in the first place. Although Emily initially resisted Sam, she soon relented, her initially prickly nature softening as she joined, and grew to care about the members of the pack. She was assigned 4th rank, between Chris and Ashley. Eventually, she too found her place amongst the pack,

Oo0oO

Two weeks later Ashley ran into Jessica in the woods. Ashley had been hunting on the far side of the mountain when she ran into a group of wanderers. They’d been harassing her for her status as a turned wolf, catching her outnumbered and off guard. Jess had saved her, a golden-furred menace that fought holding nothing back. It was Ashley who had made the offer for Jess to join, grateful for the help and knowing Sam was looking for members. She said yes immediately. And upon returning to the lodge, there was hardly any discussion before they accepted her with open arms. She ended up taking 5th rank between Emily and Ashley. No discussion needed.

And just like that, that was it.

Just like that they had their pack.

Oo0oO

Sam had been alone for a long time. She wasn’t always lonely, but sometimes the night got to her more than usual. Sometimes she thought of home more than she would have liked.

But now, Sam had a home. One that was hers, one she built for herself. One that she had built for them.

They were an unusual pack, certainly. None of them older than 20, half girls and half boys. A collection of former strays and pack wolves, turned and born wolves alike. To the outsider, it might have seemed a rather strange pack. But they were family, they were her family.

For Sam, home had never been a place. It was people.

And now, home was here.

Home was them.

Oo0oO