Chapter 1: Death
"Kaori, man," teased Steven as he nuzzled his mate's hair. "You have got to find your mate already!"
Kaori sighed, watching as Nessa, Steve's mate, flicked her mate's hand away playfully as she scrolled her phone, seeming to ignore the two men for the most part. "Steve, you know it's not that easy. I can't just make her pop up out of nowhere."
"Well, maybe you should do something other than mope around all day. Training has to get boring sometimes," Steven replied.
Kaori rolled his eyes. "Steven, training the apprentices and younger pack members is my job, you know. Plus, I find it hardly boring. Do you find it boring to be the pack doctor? Everyone loves your expertise."
"It's not the same..." mumbled Steven. Kaori rolled his eyes again, but Steven's posture became more hunched as he sat farther forward on his chair, evidence of his friend's uncertainty.
"Don't feel bad, man. You know I feel bad enough as it is about what happened with my brother all those years ago." Kaori sighed again, but decided to change the subject. "Hey, have you seen my father recently? He wants me to learn some more defense tactics from him."
"I heard there was some issue at the border, man. You might want to check on that if you want to look from him."
"Cool, thanks." He raised his hand in a fist-bump, offering to Steve. "Catch ya later, man," he said as he rose. "Bye, Nessa."
Despite the casual conversation, though, Kaori couldn't help but wonder about his mate as he walked to find the Alpha, hoping that he might have a clue where his father was. What was she like? What was her wolf like? Would they get along? Oh -- wait, of course, they would get along, they were supposed to be mates after all...
He remembered when he and Steven were seventeen and in school. They'd made a silly bet about who might find their mates first. But about a year ago, when the Alpha had found his mate, he'd invited his mate's family to the celebration. And where was Nessa? Nessa, they'd realized, was none other than the new Luna's younger sister.
Lucky duck. Lucky, lucky duck, he grumbled.
Unsurprisingly, the Alpha's office door was closed. Alpha Leo was likely out helping resolve the issue at the border. If Steven had been right -- which he had; he'd probably heard it from Nessa -- his father would be with him too. His father, being the head warrior, was often dispatched as the Alpha's personal bodyguard during these sorts of situations, and the fact that he was able to remain calm like no one else definitely helped mitigate any blood that would potentially boil.
Kaori considered using the mind link to contact them, but decided against it. Their pack rarely used it when it wasn't to contact their mates, preferring to respect each other's right to peace and quiet and only reach out in emergencies. If his father and the Alpha were busy at the moment, the last thing they would want is to be interrupted by Kaori asking where they were. He could scent them out instead.
As soon as he shifted into his wolf, his nose led the way easily. His father's scent he knew well, and Alpha Leo was a familiar scent as well; they'd grown up together and were on good terms, though hardly as good as he was with Steven. As he approached, though, he realized there was something ... strange about what he picked up. He looked at the trees, then looked around him. Nothing seemed off -- at least from what his wolf could see. But it wasn't anything unusual. It smelled sweet, familiar, like the scent of rain, roses, and teakwood mixed with his mother's detergent after she washed his laundry and Hiroki's when they were children -- the scent of childhood memories. Yet he swore that he had never smelled this scent before. Was there another wolf out there? Maybe a sister he never knew he had? Preposterous, he chided himself. You don't have a secret sister. That's impossible.
"too dangerous... something possible for us to do?" he heard his father's voice say in the distance. Kaori quickened his footsteps, wanting to be able to hear more clearly.
"infirmary... she needs help," said another voice. It sounded like Alpha Leo.
"How is she not rogue?" asked his father. "Is this even possible?"
"She is definitely not rogue, Akito. But that's not the point," said Alpha Leo urgently.
Kaori skidded to a stop as he spotted his father and Alpha Leo speaking in hushed, urgent whispers. On the ground, he spotted a golden wolf - bleeding. It looked severely injured, perhaps on the verge of death. Claw marks and blood dotted the golden fur, tinting it a deathly shade of dark red. Bullet holes littered its skin.
It was the picture of death, even if absurdly beautiful, thought Kaori. It seemed like the wolf had already begun an involuntary shift back to human. He suddenly noticed the rose and teakwood scent had gotten stronger. For reasons he couldn't understand, he felt compelled to draw closer.
"Son! What are you doing here?" asked his father in alarm. Kaori ignored him, shifting quickly back to human form, throwing on pants, and sprinting toward the person. He barely noticed the Alpha shouting after him.
The golden wolf had shifted almost back to human now. Upon closer inspection, Kaori realized it was a woman -- a young woman, probably around Nessa's age. She was littered in bullet wounds and her arm was most certainly broken, judging from the awkward angle in which the bone jutted out. But her eyes were open, and she seemed to be opening her mouth to speak.
Almost as if involuntarily, Kaori gently laid his hand on her bleeding one, and he felt his senses inundated with the scent. It was her scent, said something within him. He didn't understand what that meant. But her scent drew him in closer, closer, closer... until...
Until he locked eyes with hers.
Mate, his wolf whispered. Mate, his mind whispered. Mate, mate, mate. It was the only word his mind knew when he looked at her. At that moment, Kaori realized two very important, life-changing things: First, he'd found his mate. And second, his mate was on the brink of death.
Her lips moved, slowly, as if attempting to speak, but no sound came out. Kaori stared at her face as if attempting to memorize it, as if he wished he could heal everything that had brought her to this moment -- though he hardly had any idea what it was. A few moments passed, but it seemed like ages.
"Mate," it seemed like she said, acknowledging their bond.
Kaori thought things couldn't get any worse, but suddenly he felt as if his entire body was coming to life. A connection, the mate bond he'd been told, was forming inside him. His mate had accepted their bond and now they would forever be bound. He would never find another woman to be with forever. He felt as if the pieces in his mind, in his body, were fusing together with the parts of her that had always meant to be joined with her. It felt, to say the least, magical to him. He couldn't even believe it.
And then suddenly his mate collapsed on the grass. Her eyes rolled into the back of her head. Her breathing slowed... and slowed... and slowed... and Kaori panicked.
"Father! Help!" he said, just as he remembered their presence. "I found my mate. But she's dying!"
"Your mate, son?" asked Akito. "This is bad," he said, "but please remain calm."
"Calm, Father? How? She's dying!" yelled Kaori. "Call Steven, someone, anyone!" Kaori reached into the mind link, searching for Steven. Help! Help! Help! Desperate times called for desperate measures, after all. "Alpha, please help her," he pleaded again.
"Kaori... we'll do our best. Akito, please check her breathing and escort her to the infirmary."
His father nodded. "Son, I will try my best to save her."
"Hurry! She's not breathing!" screamed Kaori. He liked to say he could stay calm like his father but clearly when it came to his mate -- like all wolves, it was impossible. And when he looked at his mate, whose name he still didn't know, he felt so afraid. His mate seemed to be turning blue, gasping for air. He could hear her heart beating faster and faster, as if desperate. As his father reached for his mate, he used all that he could do to keep his wolf under control.
"Please don't die, mate," he whispered. "We need you. My wolf needs you. We just met you. We don't even know your name or how you got hurt! I promise I'll love you forever and ever, sweetheart. Just please don't leave me," he cried.
But something in him felt like it was breaking. Like his heart was breaking. He didn't want to admit it but he suspected it was the bond beginning to break. He'd heard about it happening when others' mates died, but he didn't know it would be this painful.
His father grabbed his mate. "Let's go," he said urgently. "Shift!"
Kaori didn't question it; he shifted. His father placed the injured woman -- his mate -- on Kaori's back. "Run!" said his father and Kaori took off in the direction of the infirmary.
He could feel himself getting weaker as the bond weakened and shattered. He was only a few hundred yards away from the infirmary when he, too, collapsed with a howl.
It was a howl of pain, because he suddenly realized that his mate wasn't breathing. And to make matters worse, he couldn't feel her heartbeat.
The ensuing howl he let out felt like the howl of a century.