Authors Note: Rounding the bend towards the end of things... phew! I can't remember a time before I was writing some version of this story; to be honest I'm kind of glad that things are coming to a close. We're probably looking at One, maybe Two more chapters and then it's all over boys and girls :) I'm looking forward to a chance to focus more on other things - but I've been going crazy trying to get this finished. All of your reviews meant so much to me, and as always I love hearing your thoughts on the characters and how I'm handling them :)
"We're now preparing to land, please ensure your tray tables are away and your seat is in the upright position."
With a sigh, Maddie uncurled her legs from the seat and re-buckled her seatbelt. The businessman seated next to her was frantically typing something on his laptop before the air hostess could force him to put it away, and beyond him the plane seemed to be filled with nothing but screaming children and their frazzled mothers. She was happy to be ignored, throughout the flight the hostesses had all treated Maddie with the polite, embarrassed blankness one might give a strange woman who had spent the majority of a ten hour flight quietly weeping. She was being pathetic possibly, but somehow she didn't have the energy to cry.
Over and over in her head, Maddie had obsessively replayed her final goodbyes to Cain. It had been early, before the sun had stretched it rays over the earth, and it had been quiet. There were no more words left to say on the drive so they stayed silent, hands clasped together so tight that Maddie imagined that even now she could feel the faint tingle of Cain's presence on her fingers.
He'd kissed her sweetly, cupping her face in his hands like she was something delicate and fragile, which Maddie supposed to him, she might be. And then she was gone, walking through the gates without looking back. If she looked back she might crumble, so Maddie walked resolutely forward through security, focusing on the banal boredom of customs officials and filling out forms instead of the immense weight laid upon her chest and the fracturing feeling that something was very broken inside her.
It wasn't until she'd gotten on the plane and felt the rolling weight of steel moving her ever further from him that Maddie let herself go to the tears. She had to do this. She did. Didn't she? She tried to reassure herself that the howling voice inside her of her wolf that this was a colossal mistake was only natural, doubt was only natural. So instead of demanding to be let off the plane so she could run back into Cain's arms and promise him she'd never leave again, Maddie had pulled her legs up and curled into a protective ball.
Now, as they prepared to land Maddie forced herself to look out the window at the familiar English land that surrounded Heathrow airport. Buildings that she vaguely recognised and ant-like cars and cabs driving on the wrong side of the road welcomed her back, but she felt no comfort in them for the time being.
When the plane jolted to the ground she reluctantly gathered the books that she hadn't touched throughout the flight and stowed them into her bags with the iPod she hadn't listened to and the magazines she'd yet to glance at. Moving through the passage of the plane and mechanically going through the motions of picking up her baggage and declaring that she hadn't brought any fruit with her, Maddie forced herself to think of the practicalities that she'd have to deal with now, instead of the scent of warm leather and the feeling of brushstroke stubble rubbing against her cheek.
She had to get a cab, find her way back to her old apartment. Cain had handed her a set of keys before she'd left, all this time he'd been paying the rent for her and making sure that her things hadn't been just thrown out into the street when she'd disappeared. She wondered why he'd bothered, he'd certainly never intended for her to use it again, but she was thankful that he'd taken care of it for her. Like so many other things in life, he'd just quietly taken care of it without asking for thanks or accolade.
She should call her friends (whatfriends?Her wolf couldn't help but helpfully pipe in her opinion here), find out where they thought she'd been all of this time. Find work probably, though the idea of trawling the streets to look for help wanted signs and going to interviews seemed insurmountably exhausting. Was it really worth it? Maybe not. Either way she didn't need to be decided right at this very second, Maddie decided as she stepped up to her place in line for a cab.
"Where to love?" The gruff Irish voice shocked her out of her vague planning as a thickset cabbie hefted her bags into the boot of the stylish black cab. She'd missed these cabs, Maddie realised as she rattled off her old address and settled into the back compartment of the car. The cabbie made predictable airport chatter;
"Yeah fine. Long."
"We put on our best weather for ya."
She snorted an unladylike sound of disbelief at that as she looked out at the threatening grey clouds above them.
"Good to be home love?"
"mmm." A noncommittal sound as she wondered how he could tell she wasn't just another American tourist.
"Alpha Cross'll be missin' you already I'd say."
"What? How? Oh Jesus, you're… God wolves really are everywhere aren't they?"
"Course we are love. Sorry, shouldn't be so rude, pretty young thing like you it's just habit y'see?"
"I… of course." Maddie couldn't help but feel like her wolf should have been able to sniff out this fellow wolf, but then again even if she had, Maddie doubted he would have bothered to tell her. The wolf was not happy with Maddie right now, they were barely speaking.
"We all got the newsletter bout you comin' back, twas lovely picture of you darlin', if you don't mind me saying. Never thought I'd have the luck of getting' you in my cab of course, but I did hope and God loves the hopeful."
"Well big pack like the Greater London pack, we can't all be meeting together the whole time like you little country packs – gotta stay in contact somehow haven't we?"
"The Cross pack is not a little country pack, speak to an Alpha with respect."
She was surprised with how sharply she spoke to the kind Irishman, but a wave of pride for her friends in the pack had overridden her natural politeness, and she couldn't stop the sharp little snarl that emerged with her words. The cabbie glanced back at her narrowed eyes, seeing the way that she'd come alive in defense of her pack and nodded in submission.
"Of course Miss, didn't mean nothin' by it."
They continued to wind through the streets, now in silence as Maddie lapsed back into a quiet pensive. When the cab finally pulled up to her apartment, the cabbie lugged her bags up the step for her, and waved away her payment.
"No charge love, twas a pleasure to carry an Alpha in my cab."
She thanked him softly, pulling out her keys and slipping them into the familiar blue door that she'd walked through so many times before. Shutting the door behind her, Maddie left the bags in the hallway and looked through to her old living room, seeing the apartment as if through fresh eyes. Had her apartment always been this sterile looking? There must have been a time when she thought the white palate had been soothing and calming, but now it simply seemed bleak and bare.
There weren't enough knick-knacks, nothing personal to show she lived here. The Grey Falls house, although large in size, had always seemed so cosy with its personal touches scattered around every room; photos of the pack, a pair of shoes by the stairs, fresh flowers on all the tables. By comparison her old apartment was almost too clean, and Maddie suddenly longed to run through it and mess things up a little so that it looked lived in.
She sighed, dropping her keys onto an end table and moving through to the kitchen. Someone, and now Maddie shook her head and made a very firm decision she didn't want to know who or how, had obviously been here recently and stocked the kitchen with enough food to get her through the next few days.
It was still light out, and so once she'd dragged her bags into her bedroom and deposited them onto her bed, Maddie decided that instead of sitting in her flat and wallowing even more, she should take herself out for a while. Slipping into a long sleeved black dress that hugged her body and skimmed her thighs, a pair of tights and a classic pea coat, Maddie found that if nothing else it was at least easy to slip back into her old wardrobe of chic monochromatic classics, much more suited to the streets of London than her worn jeans and cobalt blue singlet that she'd worn on the plane.
Letting herself out of her apartment, Maddie found herself walking without a clear destination in mind. She took the most familiar streets, reacquainting herself the sights and sounds of the city once more. Before long, she found herself standing at the door to Milk and Honey, her old place of work. She didn't know if Linda would be working, but Maddie found herself very eager to see the girl who'd been so kind to her when she'd been so determined to hide away in her shell.
She pushed through the familiar doors and stepped onto the hard wooden floor that she'd quietly resented throughout most of her work days for giving her sore legs after a long day of walking on. An unfamiliar girl looked up at her with a smile, and Maddie had the too-familiar feeling of being assessed for worthiness and net-income.
She must have passed the test because the girl stood up from the stool Linda had usually perched on to read one of her novels and greeted her with the standard 'Hi, looking for something special today?' that all employees had been taught during training. Maddie knew that if she said no the girl would then walk over to the other side of the store to 'tidy the clothes', but really watch her like a hawk for any sign she might be about to shoplift. There was definitely something to be said for familiarity.
"I'm looking for Linda, is she working today?" The girl's smile dropped a few notches now that she realised Maddie wouldn't be buying anything today.
"She's just out the back, I'll go get her for you."
Maddie took a few moments to wander around the store to check out the new stock and smile at the mannequins that had always given her such grief as she changed the displays. The damn things had always been too heavy and the arms were prone to dropping off at the slightest breeze. Bloody things.
The sharp squealing startled her and Maddie couldn't help but jump as a large mass collided with her body and wrapped around her with the strength of a small python. Well at least Linda was excited to see her then. Maddie managed to squeeze her arms out of Linda's vice grip and return the hug, laughing as they both tilted to the left and then nearly toppled over as they did a little wriggling dance of excitement to see one another again.
When they finally released one another, both girls were laughing and the new shop girl was staring at both of them looking confused and just a little bit uncomfortable at the display of emotions in front of her.
"Bridget go and unpack the rest of the palazzo pants, I'll hold the fort out here."
The girl, Bridget rolled her eyes and clomped into the back room, muttering something about how Linda 'sooo didn't deserve to be manager.' It was so familiar to how Maddie had once felt about Linda that she couldn't help but smile. She remembered vividly feeling annoyed when Linda told her to do something that she didn't feel was in her duties, but as she was now acutely aware: some things in life were simply unfair.
Pulling out a stool from one of the dressing room the two girls sat behind the desk as Linda caught Maddie up on all of the London gossip; the new clubs that had opened since she'd been gone, the cool new restaurants.
"So girl, is your Aunt all better? I was so worried when I got your email and you just, like, disappeared!"
Her aunt? What email? Maddie realised that Cain must have done some rather strenuous work behind the scenes when he took her back to Grey Falls, tying up the strings of her life so no one would realise what had actually happened. The fact that Maddie didn't actually have an aunt must have escaped him, that or he must have taken a rather risky guess that Maddie hadn't been over forthcoming with the fact that she had little in the way of extended family.
"Yeah…" She began slowly, trying to work out what Cain might have said in his email and trying not to contradict him. "She's as good as can be expected, you know, considering."
"Oh yeah of course. You poor thing, does macular degeneration run in your family?"
"I hope not." Well at least that was the truth. Maddie wasn't sure what macular degeneration was, but it definitely didn't sound like something she wanted to catch.
"That was so brave of you to go and look after her like that. Who's taking care of her now?" Maddie felt especially bad for going along with this increasingly elaborate lie when faced with the very real concern painted across Linda's, as always, immaculate face. But she comforted herself with the fact that she couldn't exactly tell her the truth now, could she?
Yeah, that would definitely go down well. Linda would think she'd gone insane and call up the nice men with the nice white jackets who would lock her away for the rest of her life. It was definitely safer and kinder to stick with the lie.
"I, uh, organised a carer for her before I left, things were getting a little bit intense for me."
"You poor thing, I so know what you need to relax."
Maddie knew what was coming and rapidly began shaking her head.
"No. No no no no no."
"Come on, you always say that and then we have a great time, don't we?"
Always was a little bit of an overstatement of things, wasn't it? As far as Maddie was aware, the two of them had only gone out together a very limited number of times and if she remembered the last time correctly: things had ended in spectacular disaster.
As if Linda could read Maddie's mind she reached forward and took deceptively strong grip on her hand, leaning forward and adopting a sad little pout of despair.
"Please? Last time we went out you got sick and left so early and then you disappear out of the blue right when that bastard Pete ditches me! You owe me!"
That was some pretty sketchy logic on the terms of how someone comes to 'owe' another person, but Maddie did feel bad for the role she'd played in Pete 'ditching' Linda, so she reluctantly agreed to meet the girl for a drink later. It would be good to go out and take her mind off of things, or to be more specific; to take her mind off the horrible twisted feeling in her gut that seemed to pulse whenever she thought of Cain.
Bridget chose this moment to emerge from the stock room with a question about the Celine tuxedo shirts that apparently had yet to arrive. Maddie took this moment to excuse herself; emerging from the store after nothing more than two more hugs and a promise to see Linda at her flat at nine o'clock that night. After that encounter Maddie decided she'd best go back to her apartment and try to get some sleep, the jetlag which had been creeping up on her for the past few hours choosing that moment to hit her like a slow-moving freight train. She barely made it back to her bedroom before her eyes drooped shut, falling into a deep sleep within moments of her head hitting the pillow.
Her dreams were full of hot, sharp shapes and bright colours. Her wolf was there, staring resentfully no matter what direction Maddie turned her head and snarling at her, maw curling back from yellowed teeth to emanate a deep and predatory growl.
The wolf prowled forward, pushing Maddie back into a corner full of black shadows that curled around her limbs and suckled onto her skin with a nauseous wet slurping sound. She wriggled, trying to pull away without success. She struggled forward, growing steadily more panicky as the shadows grew into vines and crawled up her body, ever tighter and beginning to cut into her skin, sucking her down into the ground as if it was quicksand. As one of the shadow vines pushed their way into her mouth and forced itself down her throat, Maddie began to choke, silently begging her wolf to come to her aid and protect her like it was supposed to.
The wolf shook its head, projecting its disdain as it turned its back on her. "Wanttobealone,bealone.Nopack,noprotect.Allbyyourselfallforeveralone. Bitch.Stupidwhoreleavebitch,why?Whyaway?Back.Pack,backhome.Notahuman.Animal.Goback.Mate.Nomorelying.Home.Homehomehomehomehome."
With a gasp, Maddie awoke, running a hand through her dishevelled hair as she tried to calm the heavy thumping of her chest. She'd fallen asleep in her clothes and now they felt uncomfortably constricting as she remembered the shadowy vines from her dream. Nightmare, she corrected herself as she pushed off the bed and began to struggle out of her badly wrinkled clothes. Pulling closed her drapes, Maddie realised that the sun had gone down so she must have slept for some time, even if it had felt like barely minutes.
She wanted nothing more than to crawl into bed and go back to sleep, but she'd promised Linda she'd go out, and so rather than changing into comfortable flannel pyjamas, she pulled a black lace dress from the depths of her closet and slipped into that instead. Going through the regular motions of getting herself dressed up was soothingly mindless, and if nothing else took her mind off her dream.
It had been horrible, the feeling of being sucked down and swallowed whole by the inky shadows. She remembered the feeling of aching aloneness that had engulfed her body as she'd tried to fight the darkness off, and the stomach-turning understanding that there was no way to fight off the darkness when it came for you. The worst feeling however hadn't been the empty loneliness of the dream, or the terrifying violations of the shadows forcing themselves inside her, but seeing her wolf turn its back on her. It had hurt, seeing her wolf deny her like that, seeing the wolf refuse to help her when she needed it most. It had been the same feeling as seeing your best friend turning on you in your high school hallway, laughing along with all the bullies who'd tormented you the most.
She wondered if it hurt her wolf so much when she denied it. And she had denied it, pretending to herself for so long that what was so clearly happening to her wasn't really happening. It had been almost less painful to imagine she'd lost her mind than to accept the truth. Even after she'd transformed – Maddie had kept pretending she was a human, she realised. Kept pretending her life was going on as normal, when in reality nothing was ever going to be normal for her again. And why would she want that? She wondered. What part of her life so far had proven normal to be the right path for her? Maddie had never been 'normal' and it came to her that spending so much of her life striving for normal showed an appalling lack of imagination on her part.
In that moment Maddie realised that despite anything else, she and her wolf were meant to be a united force. She had to stop fighting this creature that lived inside of her – hell she had to stop thinking of it as a creature that lived inside her. All of this time she'd thought of them as separate entities; she the civilised human, and it the animalistic beast that on a monthly basis would now take control of her. But she was wrong to think of it like that, it dawned on her. Her wolf might be an animal, and it might think of the world in different terms than she always did, but the animal was still a part of her. It was something that she'd grown and had come from part of her soul that Maddie always tried very hard to pretend didn't exist in her.
Maddie had fought against her darkness as if it was something to be ashamed of, like she should feel guilty about not being perfect all her life. The part of her that was wolf had no such illusions about itself, she realised. She thought the creature was feral the way that it always screamed for blood and hunting and mating, but actually it was simply a wolf. Wolves weren't ashamed of their desires, or scared of what other people might think of their needs. And that creature that was so gloriously unashamed of itself was a part of her, the part of her that was free and wild and knew exactly what it was. It didn't feel the need to prove to anyone how strong it could be, it simply got on with its life.
That, Maddie realised was what being strong was about. She'd promised herself months ago to stop being scared of who she was and start being the strong girl she'd been before life had jaded her but now she could appreciate that maybe she'd gone too far in the other direction. Instead of hiding away from the world and so meek that she'd let people walk all over her as long as it kept the peace, she was now so terrified of letting anyone close that she'd run away from the person who loved her unconditionally just to prove how strong she was and how much she didn't need anyone, even her wolf.
'Stupidgirl.' Her wolf chose this moment to chime in, and Maddie found herself nodding in agreement. It was stupid to deny a part of herself and keep pretending like she was just another typical human. Her eyes had been opened to things so much bigger than her little world, she'd acquired a new family who would support her unconditionally, and for God's sake she was a magical fucking creature now! She absolutely was a stupid girl to turn her back on all of that and try to come back to her life in London just to prove she could handle it. It seemed like being strong as a wolf and being strong as a human were two very different things. Being strong for Cain had been letting his guard down and letting himself not be the autocratic Alpha everyone expected him to be, but to show himself to her as weak. He already thought she was worthy of him, in fact if Maddie stopped to think about it – she realised that he was secretly much more worried about proving that he was worthy of her.
That was when it came to her that mating wasn't really about the male at all. All of this time, she'd thought she hadn't had a choice in the matter and that Cain was the one holding all the cards. But ultimately it was her decision, and it had been all this time. Sure, the male made the initial choice, but it was up to the female to accept or reject him. It was never the female who had to prove herself worthwhile in a wolf relationship, but the male who was constantly proving he could be a good provider and deserved a chance to mate.
Maddie couldn't understand how she'd gotten that so wrong. Throughout all of their relationship, Maddie had assumed that Cain was the one who'd been holding all of the cards and that she'd been struggling to keep up. But when she thought back on it, she was the one constantly claiming she didn't need him, didn't want him; running away from their relationship while Cain chased after her.She'd left Grey Falls with the hair-brained thought that she needed to prove she could be alone and be alright with that – but in reality she'd just been running away. Again. It was starting to feel like her whole life was about running away from the things that scared her.
And then it came to her.
The real test wasn't whether she could survive alone; she'd spent years proving that to herself. No, being alone was easy. What was hard was letting yourself rely on someone.
Life was funny sometimes. Epiphanies never come the way you think they will, on an appropriate time schedule and in a fitting arena to deal with them. No, epiphanies come when they are least convenient; as you're stepping out of a shower, while your dinner burns in the pan, or in Maddie's case, with a flash and a bang as you're getting ready to go out for a drink with an old friend and have no time to properly digest them.
I know, I know, weird place to end things? blurgggh, it was either end things here or have the chapter be about 15,000 words long. I know some of you are probably going "MAKE IT 15000 WORDS LONG FOOL" - but well... I didn't :P