There wasn’t much left from the groceries that remained in plastic containers scattered randomly across the small refrigerator. The lights above my head flickered once, then twice before I shut the small door and looked at the sleeping figures sprawled out on the floor.
Both my sisters slept soundly, and just down the hall I could hear the soft snores from my parents; one louder than the other. My hands rubbed the dark circles under my eyes, ignoring the soreness from my palms, legs, and everything in between.
I was pushing myself harder than I should be, but the training sessions that the people from the wealthier side of Canine paid for were harder, longer, and better equipped. Anything less on my part would earn an automatic failing grade for the Phase 1 of the mating tradition.
It was true that most of the previous winners from generations way before my time were already wealthy enough to not worry about whether or not they’d have food that would last for the whole week, but I had hope that came from the few winners that grew up only blocks from where I lived.
Sarah Carter had been the last one from South Canine, but I had memorized every last bit of information about her training, making sure every ounce of pain ringing from even the smallest crevice on my body wasn’t in vain. All the long runs, fastings, heavy lifting, and self defense sessions with Nathan - who was a guard for our Alpha - were the closest I could get to a shot at winning. Of course, the prize itself wasn’t any ordinary prize; under normal circumstances I would avoid it at all costs, but this wasn’t about me.
I dragged my feet across the wooden floor, slipping my jacket off before I settled into the small space left on the thin blanket that shielded my back from the cold floor. Liz, the younger one of us three, scooted closer to me, instinctively pressing her face against my stomach and pushing away from Sam. My fingers traced over her lopsided braids, each stroke becoming slower and slower as I let my eyes close.
Morning runs were becoming easier and easier, but I wasn’t sure if it was from being numb, or if it was because my body was strong enough to endure the twists and turns of the forest. Wealthy people trained on cleaner fields, but truth was, no opponent would ever give you a clean fight.
It was easy to avoid the fallen branches, the loose rocks only half sunken in the mud, and the trees that seemed to reach out to touch my face. I knew these paths almost as much as the Alpha, himself.
A small movement came from the far left side; it was small, but out of place. Just as I stepped on the large trunk to jump over the large stones, a large shadow jumped in front of me, swiftly turning around to bury me within itself. I was embraced for impact, but I was only caught in a large blanket of fur.
When we stopped rolling down the hill, I coughed up the hair that had gotten into my mouth.
“Dude, seriously?” I ran the back of my hand down and then across my lips, cursing a string of profanities at Nathan. Usually, he joined my runs when he was assigned perimeter checks at dawn, so it wasn’t a surprise whenever he popped out of no where to push my heaving body to the finish mark whenever I was too tired to keep going.
His hazel eyes were way lighter than his almond colored fur. He sat on his hind legs, paws slightly bigger than my head. If he wanted to, he’d just have to give one good swipe and that would be it for me.
"You know, you could've just ran alongside me." Nathan shook his head in response. "Alright, but don't act surprised when I change my running schedule to avoid you."
I always admired their wolf forms. Not everyone in the pack was allowed to shift into one. Unless you were working for the Alpha’s pack like Nathan was, or you were chosen to mate, would you have the privilege to be bitten by the Alpha, or injected with exactly three ounces of his blood; anything more was lethal.
Nathan stood up on all fours, turned around and hid behind a tree. When he came back out, he was fully naked.
"You need me, Jamie. Last time, you didn't even make it to the damn river!"
I scoffed, "That's because I deliberately went around. I can't jump ten feet across like you can, Nate."
He laughed, running his hands through his tangled hair, "That can change. You're just too stubborn."
When he was less than five feet away, I placed my hands against his chest. I looked at the scars on his tanned skinned for a while before looking up at him, "I can't."
He rolled his eyes, effectively causing my hands to drop to my sides while he stepped away from me, "Yes, you can. You just don't want to because you're afraid."
"I'm not afraid," I argued. "I just don't like being uncertain. We've talked about this."
He shook his head, "No. You've talked about it, and then refused to listen to my reasoning."
"Mating with you won't guarantee my family's survival, Nate."
"Jamie," he insisted, stepping close enough for me to see the plead in his eyes. "You don't need the Alpha's child to be able to survive," he whispered, making sure his words were only heard by me.
I pursed my lips together, letting his forehead fall softly against mine. I wish he hadn't been assigned as a guard.
Nathan had passed the test, becoming one of the pack's best fighters in only five years. If he hadn't, he'd either have to excel in a profession, or live off scraps. The men who took up on professions were usually rich to start with. Leaving people like my father, an experienced nurse, out of the game and into the shadows like hundreds before him.
Nothing assured me that at some point Nathan wouldn't be ripped away from me. That would put me back to square one, and by then, it'd be too late to compete.
I didn't have to say any of that to him because he didn't need that on his mind from me whenever our pack had a surprise attack.
Nate sighed, "If I didn't like you so much..." It pained to have to choose someone else over him. He had already etched himself so deep into me that it made the idea of having someone else's child almost repulsive.
"I know," I mumbled. But this wasn't about me, or him. This was about everyone but us.