Now it is Saturday afternoon, and Alpha Cardinal and Ryker are preparing to visit the prison.
"We're not going to be meeting with Seth," Alpha Cardinal reassures me once again, "we're only meeting with the warden and getting information on all of the people that have visited Seth."
I bite my lip and turn to look at my brother. His eyebrows are drawn together and his jaw is clenched. His hands in fists beside him.
"I don't think it's a good idea...." I murmur. Blake turns to lock eyes with me. His eyes are almost black, his wolf no doubt fighting for control. I think back to the last time Blake had been near Seth.... it was during the trial, while he listened to all the explicit detail from the officers who had found me and the implications of what had been done to me.
"They won't be dissuaded, Andy," He growls. Alpha Cardinal sighs and stops messing with his bag.
"Blake... You're needed here, with Andy. She's the biggest target and the more people we have protecting her-"
"Yeah, I know." He spits out, cutting off the Alpha. He sighs and walks over to Blake.
"Give us a second please, Andy?" I nod, aware that he is just as frustrated as I am that they were going. Only his anger stems from the wish to go with them. He'd told me that his previous alpha had ordered him to stand down the last time I'd gone missing, to let the authorities handle it.
I stalk out of the room, anger and anxiety tugging at my chest. I am on edge. The idea of my Alpha and my mate being remotely close to the monster in my nightmares both terrifies and enrages me. I don't want them to go, but I had been outvoted. They don't see any other way to figure out who is stalking me.
I push past Ryker, but his hand on my wrist pulls me back. Carefully, he tugs me into his arms and presses my face into the crook of his neck. After three deep breaths I can't help but relax-my anger slowly sweeping back to general frustration. I find myself leaning further into his massive body. The second I give in I feel the rubber bands that bind us together release, and the electricity dancing between us increases.
"It's going to be ok, Andy. I promise." He whispers into my ear, stroking his arms up and down my back in a soothing pattern. The sparks dancing between us curb my rage, along with his scent. I breathe deeply again and then draw back so I can look up at him.
"I'm scared." I breathe. His eyebrows furrow.
"I'm scared that he's going to know you're there" He shakes his head and starts to open his mouth to interrupt me but I push on. "And He knows who you are... knows what we are to each other." I pause to suck in another breath and revel in his woodsy scent. "He won't stop until he's got me back in that cellar."
Ryker sighs and tugs me closer again.
"He won't get the chance." He murmurs into the top of my head. He places a gentle kiss to the crown of my head before pulling back enough to murmur further reassurances. "Nothing bad will happen. He won't have any idea that we're there. You heard my dad, we aren't visiting Seth, just going to see the Warden." I sigh, still nervous and frustrated but I choose to believe his words.
"Ry." His dad calls from behind us. We break apart, reluctantly, to see his father offering us a sad smile.
"We've gotta go." Ryker nods and drops his grip on my hand, the only place we'd remained touching when his father had called for his attention. He turns his gaze back to me and gives me a rough attempt at a smile.
"We'll be back as soon as we can." I nod.
"The jail is in North Bay, and we have an appointment first thing tomorrow morning to see the warden. Our best warriors have been assigned to watch you, and the patrols have been increased so that there isn't an inch of this land someone could skip past. You'll be safe here until we return tomorrow evening." Alpha Cardinal reassures me. "Just stay in the pack house as much as possible, please." His mate is standing beside him, waiting for his turn to say goodbye. Once he is done explaining the layout to me he turns and wraps him in his arms.
Ryker steals my attention once again to offer me a gentle smile. I give him my best attempt in return, but I'm sure it comes out looking more like a grimace. He smiles brighter anyways and turns to follow his father out the door.
Blake leans against the door jam beside me and folds his arms across his chest. His eyes are still hard and angry, but he isn't chasing after them.
He turns to look down at me.
"It's going to be ok, Andy. I promise." I nod and let my head drop.
I watch in silence as they shove their overnight bags in the trunk, then climb in and slam their doors shut. I continue watching until the car pulls out of the long driveway and slowly disappears from view.
"Well then," Luna Cardinal clears his throat beside me. "Why don't we make some cookies?" I turn and smile up at him, his warmth and loving energy helping to distract me from the bottomless pit of despair I am slowly sinking into.
"That sounds like a good plan." I whisper back. I follow him into the kitchen, but Blake growls and turns back towards the door.
"I'm going out." He growls over his shoulder. Luna Cardinal and I watch in silence as he stalks out of the house.
"He'll be alright." Luna Cardinal says, still following his dark form as he stomps into the woods. "It's just hard for him, not jumping into the fray..." I nod and finally turn away from the window.
"He always was one for fighting." I whisper. He chuckles and then starts walking towards the kitchen again. "Most wolves are." He tosses over his shoulder. I give a weak smile and start washing my hands.
"Arrow!" He bellows. I Hear muttered curse words coming from her bedroom on the floor above us and after a moment, thumping as she speeds from her room.
"Yeah pop?" She calls, breathless. I raise my eyebrow at the sound of her voice.
"Come down and help us make cookies!" He shouts back. a coy smirk playing at the edges of his lips. I furrow my brows but he just shakes his head at me, amusement dancing along his face. He's obviously picked up on soemthing I've missed.
A minute later a very tousled looking Arrow slinks her way into the kitchen. She is blushing from head to toe and it only takes a deep breath for me to figure out why.
She smells heavily of pine trees and fresh cut grass, almost overpowering her usual scent of apples and fresh water. She smells like Rowan, and from the dark purple hickey sitting in the crook of her neck it isn't hard to deduce that they'd been... hanging out... in her bedroom before her father's distraction.
"So what's this I hear about cookies?" Rowan strides into the kitchen, smiling like the devil and tugging at the bottom of his shirt in a way that makes it clear he is pulling it back into place.
Mr Cardinal and I share a look that causes Arrow's cheeks to burn impossibly brighter and then the two of us devolve into a fit of welcome giggles.
"It's not what it looks like!" Arrow screeches only serving to make us laugh harder.
"It's not what it looks like!" Arrow squeals again as we continue laughing. Rowan shakes his head in amusement and brushes past his sulking mate to get to the fridge.
Arrow stomps her foot.
"It's not even funny!"
"Oh no dear," Her pop chuckles as he pulls himself to his feet, "I think it's quite funny." Arrow shoots a glare his way, mumbling curses under her breath. I smile to myself and stand to my slight height, wiping the tears from my eyes.
"Really like to make him suffer a little longer." I tease, referencing our conversation in the bedroom.
She turns her glare on me and sticks out her tongue.
"Oh no she was definitely making me suffer," Rowan interrupts, mouth stuffed with leftover Mac and cheese, "Wouldn't even let me take her shirt off! No matter how much I kissed her neck!"
"Rowan!" Arrow squeals and turns her glare on him.
I snicker again and turn to help her pop pull ingredients out for our cookies.
"Children please," he chastises, "I don't want to hear about your actual mating, no matter how old you are."
"We weren't even!" Arrow shrieks again. Mr Cardinal offers me a wink and I snicker again in return.
"Really dear do you think I'm that dumb?"
"I'm only saying I support you! I just don't want to hear any details!"
"Argh!" Arrow squeals and stomps out of the kitchen. Rowan chuckles and starts to follow her, only for Arrow to scream "don't even think about it Bub!"
He sinks back into his stool at the counter and continues stuffing his face with his leftovers.
"Did you even bother to heat that up?" I raise my brows. He offers me a wide smile but says nothing. I roll my eyes and focus on the dough I am tossing things into.
"You've been good for my children." Mr Cardinal speaks out of the blue nearly half an hour later. Rowan had left as soon as he'd finished his snack and We'd worked in silence up to this point.
"What do you mean?" I place the first tray of cookies in the oven and turn to face him. He is standing at the counter, rolling dough into tiny balls and placing them on the next tray.
He offers me a warm smile.
"You've been good for them. Before you, Arrow was alone all the time, refusing to acknowledge her mate and slowly sinking further into a depression." He shakes his head. "That girl can be more stubborn than her father, which is saying something. But then you came along... and now she's working towards accepting Rowan even though he acted like an asshat when they were younger, and she's friends with her brother again. She's not alone anymore, and has never smiled quite so much."
I smile and walk back to the counter to help him with the rest of his dough.
"She's done way more for me...." I whisper. Mr Cardinal smiles down at me before wiping his hands on his apron.
"I don't think that's true. You are truly the strongest woman I've ever met, and I couldn't imagine a better match for my son." I flush at the mention of Ryker.
"He'd probably be b-better off with someone else..." I whisper. He frowns and grabs my hands to stop me from fiddling with the dough. I glance up at him and almost melt under his warmth.
"I used to think the same way, you know." I glance up at him with a frown. "What do you mean?"
"When I first met Ben, I was working in a cafe as a waitress. I was so unhappy..." His eyes drift off, lost in memories. "I hadn't come out yet, or even really acknowledged to even myself that I wasn't what I looked like when I looked in the mirror.... And when Ben came in and recognized me as his mate I felt like that was it... I was stuck in that body forever, pretending to be someone that I wasn't so that I could deserve to be by his side."
"How did you realize you were enough as you were?"
He blinks and comes back to the present.
"Ben's mom, actually. She pulled me aside one day and said that it was obvious I was hiding something, and if I wanted to be with her son I needed to come out and say it right then or she would separate us, Goddess blessed match or not. I spilled everything to her, and it felt so good to finally say it out loud.... I told her that I felt like I am a man, and that I was so miserable because in order to deserve being at Ben's side I needed to keep living in the body I was assigned."
"What did she do?" "She grabbed a pair of scissors and chopped off a huge chunk of my hair. I was so surprised I didn't even try to stop her... But then she pulled me into a hug and told me that Ben would love me no matter what, and that the only way I would deserve him is by being my authentic self."
"And when you told Mr. Cardinal?"
"He told me he loved me for the person I am, not the body I inhabit. So we finished cutting my hair, and I officially started my transition.... And I've never been happier, or felt like I deserved my mate more than I do now that I'm living my authentic life."
"It will be like that for you, too. When you realize that what you are is good enough, scars and all. Ryker was made for you, just like you were made for him. And no matter what you go through, no matter what horrors you are still yet to face, no one is better for him. You bring a balance to his life that will be unmatched by any other, or if he were left alone."
"What do you mean?"
"Before he met you, he was.. complicated. All he ever wanted to do was be with Rowan or one of his warriors. He was arrogant and thought himself above the rules, and he avoided anyone that tried to get close to him. And then he met you... and now he's less cocky, more confident. Less prideful, more proud. Less... lost. He knows now where his place is and he's choosing to go in that direction because he knows he's got you to compliment him and all his faults along the way." I flush at his words, but my wolf preens under his praise. She likes that Ryker's father approves of us.
"Thank you." I whisper. He smiles brightly at me and we go back to working in silence.
After the cookies were all made, and dinner had been served and eaten I ended up back in my room thinking about Ryker.
The rubber bands that try to pull us together seem especially stretched, and I know it is the distance wearing on our bond. I reach out to him with my mind, but he must be too far away as he doesn't answer me.
So instead I lay in bed until my eyelids are too heavy, and finally succumb to an uneasy sleep.
I am dreaming. That is the only thing I am sure of. This world is too fuzzy, too confusing to be reality.
"Andromeda" Seth's voice calls to me. I spin to try to find him, but no matter which way I turn I can't see him.
I glance down at my body and am surprised to see that I am dressed in my shiny black tutu from the Black Swan performance I'd starred in. I glance at my feet and immediately recognize my pointe shoes.
"Andromeda" Seth calls again, this time clearly behind me. I spin again but still he isn't there. My breathing becomes uneven and my heart starts to race as I keep searching for him.
"Andromeda." He calls me a third time. This time when I whirl around he is standing there, mere feet from me. If I were to reach out my arm and he were to reache out with his we would be touching.
He smiles at me, the cruel grin that haunts my memories.
"Seth." I whimper. His smile grows
"So you do remember me!" He practically squeals. I bite my tongue to stop the angry response from bubbling out.
"Good. Because I just wanted to give you a heads up." He turns so I can see behind him. A gasp leaves my throat. Behind him there are hundreds of broken bodies. I don't recognize all of them, but several I would know even without eyes.
Arrow is laying at the top of one pile, limbs twisted in the wrong directions. Rowan is there, his face mashed up and bleeding, and Alpha Cardinal, Luna Cardinal, the beta, gamma and delta and their mates. And immediately behind him with all the same markings as Steven had, is Ryker.
"You know how this dance goes by now, my little ballerina. I'm coming for you. And if you don't want this," he gestures at the many broken bodies, "to become reality, you will choose me. After all, we were made for each other." He smiles wider at me again and turns so his body is shielding the array of horrors behind him once again.
"I'm coming baby, just hold on." He reaches up and presses a kiss to his hand before blowing it at me. I flinch as if I'd been slapped and he laughs.
I jolt awake, a scream dying on my lips as the darkness of my room enters my vision. I take in a deep breath before freezing. Something doesn't smell right. There's something warm and sticky clinging to the air, a gross weight that sticks to the inside of my nose.
I whip my head around, sniffing, and scream again.
A shadow is standing at the end of my bed, a massive male figure cloaked in darkness. I feel like they smile at me and I scream again as the shadow leans forward. Something hits the bed by my feet and I rip my feet away, pushing myself as far from the monster lurking over me as possible. But by the time I've moved, whoever they are has disappeared. Just vanished back into the shadows, leaving nothing but my empty room and whatever they'd left on my bed.
Thundering steps echo outside of my room, someone running to me. No doubt having heard my screams.
I glance down at the bed and hear myself screaming again. Whoever had been thundering up the steps rips my door open and suddenly I am bathed in light.
"What's going on?" Rowan screams. I shake and keep screaming, unable to explain. He curses as he registers the dark lump on my bed and screams over his shoulder, ordering someone to check the yard and the surrounding area. He kneels beside me on the floor, trying to pull my attention from the gift that had been left for me.
"Andy," he calls, but I keep staring. He touches my arm and I rip it out of his grip, suddenly able to move. I snap forwards and grab the gift, air slowly entering my lungs.
My jaw tenses as my fingers lock on the plush softness of the stuffed wolf. It is a solid black in colour with a thin white stripe down the center of the chest, and the fur is warm to the touch. It reminds me of Ryker's wolf form, from the colour to the silkiness of the fake fur. I gasp as stuffing falls from its belly when I pick it up; carefully I turn it over.
Tears flood my eyes as I see the stuffed animal has been gutted from neck to tail, stuffing flopping out. Beside me, Rowan curses. I notice something other than stuffing buried in the belly, and without thinking I start digging through the fluff. Breathing shaky, my fingers close on something solid.
It is a card, just like the others. I pull it from the belly and bring it higher. And as I read the words that have been left for me, another scream- loudest of the ones I'd released yet- rips out of me without my permission.
I'm coming, baby. Just hold on.