"Zen! Watch this! Watch, watch!"
When her Alpha made his way to the top of the dirt bowl and peered over the edge, Astraya kicked her body into high-gear, zooming counterclockwise around the angled side of the dirt dish – tongue lolling, ears back, trampling baby ferns that were surely regretting taking up root in the rich, moist soil beneath her paws.
She zoomed by him again and again, like a marble swinging around the rim of a cup, faster and faster until she heard him say, "Your talent cannot be disputed. That is very impressive." It sounded a little dry, which only made her breathe harder, run faster, push herself to look more ridiculous.
It worked. Her normally stoic Alpha chuckled.
She barked at him as she bolted past.
She collided into his padded side as he stepped into the bowl, effectively ending her circular marathon. As she flopped a bit and got her feet under her, she didn't miss the mischievous glint in his silver eyes.
Astraya went down into a play bow, feeling spirited herself, and wagged her tail mockingly. Before he even had a chance to react, however, she zoomed away and into the forest with her butt tucked in, tail curled between her legs, ears pinned back and tongue lolling out once more.
She knew she was acting frantic and more than a tad silly, but Zenith never minded. In fact the way he called out, "I never signed up for this!" had her thinking he secretly enjoyed her over-dramatic and bizarre attempts at play.
In truth, it was Astraya that could not help herself. Two months in Zenith's presence and she was a different wolf. More confident. Less fearful. It was as if the Omega in her disappeared when he was nearby.
Perhaps it was only because he never treated her as such. In a pack as small as theirs, there was almost no need for a hierarchy.
Or maybe Zenith was just different. He treated her with respect. Spoke to her like an equal despite her weakness and inexperience. Allowed her to break free of the shackles that she had been dragging all her life. The world was beautiful again. Was safe. Was new.
Astraya pulled to a stop just out of sight of Zenith, but wasn't worried. Her short time with him had allowed her to glimpse many of his phenomenal senses. His sense of smell seemed to be the greatest, and she had soon learned that he could track her almost as easily as a compass could detect the north. Even when she couldn't smell him, she knew that he could definitely still smell her.
She angled her nose upward and took a deep breath in. Spring smelled wonderful and sweet, but bitter sweet memories flooded into her mind. Spring reminded her of Siku. Of when her beautiful brown friend had first led her to the pack of female Omegas that she had later called family. It was certainly because of her that she had managed to live at all.
"So forlorn," Zenith's voice interrupted as he lumbered by, touching his nose to the back of her left ear. "Come."
Astraya fell in step beside him, her playful energy dissipating. "I was just thinking about my friend..."
"The one you left behind."
"Yeah. I hope she's okay."
"Her quality of life might not be so bad if it was a Beta that claimed her."
Astraya thought back to the first dark wolf that had found the pair of them. It seemed so long ago already. "But...those packs will be weak, won't they?" she asked.
"A Beta to Omega pairing doesn't produce Alpha offspring, if that is what you mean. At best their pups will be Simples. At worst they will be Omegas."
"Yeah... everything has changed. The female Omegas that were forced to mate will be forced to fight now too. But all we really wanted was to be left in peace."
Zenith said nothing. His eyes remained determinedly forward. Astraya realized her mistake.
"It's not your fault," she offered hurriedly.
"Says the child to the adult," Zenith replied lowly, tinged with light teasing.
"Argh!" she dove under his front leg as he lifted it, kicking and biting at his elbow. "I'm not a child!"
He held himself still as she thrashed around in the dirt underneath him. "You're acting like a wolverine."
"No I'm not!"
He shook his mane and continued walking, careful not to step on her. When his tail brushed over her muzzle (seemingly accidentally) she latched onto it. He pulled her along with little care or notice.
After growing bored of losing, she released him and asked. "Have you ever had a mate, Zenith?"
"Why not?" she asked. It came out like a whine.
"These are pleasures I cannot have."
"Why? You're an Alpha—"
"You could bully anyone into being your friend."
He dipped his head down to hers as she walked alongside him. "Is that how Alphas do it?"
"That's how I would do it, if I was an Alpha." She gave him her most menacing growl and glared into his face. "Be my friend," she demanded.
He laughed so loud that Astraya jumped on the spot. It was a wonderful feeling though, to hear the rare sound tear out of him.
"You would make a wonderful Alpha," Zenith said. It actually sounded sincere. "Very no-nonsense. I like that."
Although she liked the compliment, she very much doubted its content.
"Why don't you lead a pack, Zen?"
"As I said, I cannot."
She wrinkled her nose. "But why not? You still haven't told me."
"I have not the time."
Walking leisurely through the budding forest as they usually did, Astraya found that very hard to believe.
"What do you mean? You have loads of time."
"Says the child to the—"
"Are you serious?"
He laughed a little, but still did not answer. Astraya felt something akin to worry begin to swell in her chest. She stopped walking, and tilted her head gently.
"Why...why won't you tell me?"
Zenith didn't miss a beat. He walked in a slow semi-circle, until his broad chest and piercing gaze had swung to face her. All at once he became very still.
"It this something you feel strongly about knowing?"
Realizing the answer was probably bigger than she initially anticipated, Astraya didn't know how to reply. She felt suddenly bad for voicing her curiosity – for pressuring him with it.
"Do you remember the promise I asked you to keep?" he inquired.
If Astraya had been shifted into her human form, she would have blushed.
"I must not love you," she said quietly, ducking her head as if to duck under the strange weight of the words.
"Why do you think I asked that of you?"
"I... I don't know."
"I did that because I am destined to disappear."
Her head shot up so fast that for a second her vision spun. Flashes of her fretful life as an Omega all but collided with her consciousness once again. Without Zenith, would she be forced to go back to that? Who would protect her? Who would even be kind to her?
"You know I am not normal," Zenith continued, calm and matter-of-fact. "I cannot live as normal wolves do. The red moon granted me this life and, eventually, will return to reclaim it."
"But," she pinched her eyes shut, and tried to think, "that sounds like—like nothing I've ever heard!"
"I don't doubt it."
She sat heavily down onto her rump, not caring if her legs splayed oddly. Not very lady-like but right now she couldn't find the will to care.
"So you were just, what, born full grown?"
"Yes, on the night of the red moon I was given shape and breath."
"Why are you here? Why were you born?"
Something like a sigh rumbled gently out of him, and his large head fell just a bit. For the first time, he looked uncertain.
"I don't know. That is why I roam. I must find the answer."
A gaping sadness yawned open within her chest. "Do you know how much time you have?"
"I'm afraid I don't." Seeming to take her silence for discouragement, he said softly, "If you wish to leave, I understand. I think you can recognize now... why I can't claim a mate or lead a pack of my own. It would be dishonest and manipulative."
Astraya felt truly doubtful that either of these words would ever describe the beautiful beast before her. He was simply too kind. Abruptly, she realized that he was also probably very, very lonely.
The white wolf pushed herself up, and forced her ears to perk forward. "We'll find your purpose. I'll help you!"
"Astraya—" He tried to argue as she trotted by jovially, "there is no we. There is only you. You must remember that."
"No," she quipped simply, tipping her chin up and away from him in a stubborn manner. She continued to trot. "If I can still see you, then there is a 'we'."
"That is a terrible idea, Omeg—"
"Hey! Is that a river? We should totally go to that river!"
"Come on, let's go!"