Chapter 11 - The Football Game

"Rhydian, you're not stopping me from playing. You're not the boss of me," Maddy growled. It was after school, just a few weeks since Rhydian had woken up from the dreamworld. The football field—'soccer' according to those silly Americans—had a rare day of English sunshine and a blue sky which all but begged 'Play on!' Jimi, Sam, Liam, Tom, and the other boys were all eager to start play.

There was just one problem. Two wolfbloods were having a showdown on the side of the field.

"I told you why I don't want you to," Rhydian huffed. Maddy had tied her hair up into a rare ponytail. She had cleats on and even a football jersey Tom had made for her. She couldn't play on the team officially, but she'd learned to enjoy playing with the team in scrimmage after school on certain days. In fact, thanks to her wolfblood reflexes, she was a pretty mean defender. Jimi usually made Maddy and Rhydian play on separate teams because when both wolfbloods were on the same side, the game tended to tip violently towards one outcome…

The slender wolfblood girl pressed two fists to her forehead as if warding off a massive headache. "Let me get this straight. When I came back to Stoneybridge after my parents died, you were the one who got me into playing football with the team after school, said it would help calm my wolf. I didn't believe you at the time, but I've come to love it…and now you tell me I can't do it?"

Rhydian's blue eyes crinkled with distress. "Mads, look, you might get hurt. This is a rough sport. People knock into each other when trying to head the ball, or sometimes a kick can miss the ball and then the cleats shred your knee…or somewhere worse!"

Maddy rolled her eyes. "Rhydian, you think I don't know all this after playing football the past several months? What's going on with you?" Now her voice lowered so others wouldn't hear. "Ever since you finally woke up for good from the dreamworld—you've been different. Crazy, overprotective different. You need to stop."

But the blonde wolfblood boy dug in his heels. "Maddy, I care about you. I don't want you getting hurt. You need to respect that."

"And you need to respect that I get to make my own decisions. Living in a padded room so that nothing can ever hurt me is not an option." Now she was up in his face—as much as she could be, given how much shorter she was. She was growling up at him, and he was glaring down at her.

"Hey, can we get to playing? The whole field's waiting for you two," Tom called as he and Jimi ran over.

Jimi nodded at Maddy. "You're on my team. Get in position." Jimi had a smirk on his face clearly meant for Rhydian, but the look of adoration he slipped Maddy's way as she ran onto the field gave Tom a sudden realization. So this is why Jimi has a thing for Mads now. Because she's good at football. Tom would have started grinning about the whole thing, but Rhydian was up in his face looking like a grumpy bear.

"We're not letting Mads play. She might get hurt. This is supposed to be an all-boys team anyway."

Tom gently put his hands on Rhydian's chest and tried to put on his best taming voice. "Whoa, mate. Take a deep breath. You and Maddy have played on this field at least a dozen times. What makes today different? You take the field. You're on my team, since Maddy's on Jimi's."

The wolfblood boy shook his head with a definitive no. "Fine, if Maddy plays, I'm on her team. It's not negotiable."

There was some wrangling and argument which followed, but finally Jimi agreed so that they could just start playing. He put most of the better players on the other team to make up for the fact that Maddy and Rhydian were both on his team—and then finally the game began.

It was one of the oddest scrimmages the team ever had. The unstoppable Maddy-Rhydian combo didn't work like it was supposed to. Maddy was so angry at Rhydian for being unreasonable, she hardly ever passed him the ball. He only made matters worse because whenever an opposing player took the ball from Maddy, he would go after that player relentlessly, trying to steal the ball back. As the game intensified, with Rhydian playing as if Maddy was the point of the game rather than focusing on the ball, and Maddy playing as if Rhydian was a crazy person on the field instead of a member of her team—things didn't go so well.

About 45 minutes in, everyone took a 5-minute breather. Jimi came up to Maddy and Rhydian.

"What's going on with you two? We're down 0-2 thanks to you. When are you going to start playing like you're on the same team?" When Jimi saw Maddy and Rhydian just glowering at each other without so much as a word, he threw up his hands and walked off.

The second half of the game started off better. Maddy felt the rush of adrenaline as her wolfblood instincts invaded every part of her. She felt her veins pounding with the wolf inside her as she stole the ball, dribbled it through three defenders, and scored a hard-fought goal. Now she was leaping up and giving Jimi a high-five. Jimi took the opportunity to snag her in a hug and swing her around with a victory whoop before setting her back down. She turned to give Rhydian a high-five too, but he just brushed past her with a grimace. She tried to shrug it off and celebrate with the rest of her team, but the hurt on her face lingered.

"This is painful to watch," Shan said from the sidelines.

"Tell me about it," Tom said. Tom had bribed his ginger-haired, football-hating friend with free food to wait up for them. Shan was sitting next to the white line with a textbook opened on her knees, preparing for her physics exam.

"Did you see the way Jimi's looking at Mads? We should have figured it out sooner."

Shan's eyebrows shot up. "What?!"

"At Bernie's the other day, remember? Jimi likes Mads because she's good at football. Now it all makes sense."

Shan giggled. "Yes…it does." But then her face turned somber. "It's too bad Rhydian and Mads are quarreling all the time lately. I hate to say it, mate, but you need to have a talk with your boy. He's smothering Mads."

Tom shifted uncomfortably. "Yeah, I get that, but what do you expect ME to do? It's not like he's going to listen to me."

Shan closed her book, put it away in her rucksack, and stood up to give Tom a matter-of-fact stare. "Are you sure about that? You remember when Rhydian's mother first came from the wild to take Rhydian away from Maddy and Stoneybridge? You remember how he decided to stay instead of going with his own mum?"

"Yes…?" Tom said, totally confused.

"Well, he stayed because of YOU. Because of something you said to him. He told me about it later."

"Because of something I said to him?"

"Yes, Tom. When Rhydian told you that he didn't belong here in Stoneybridge, you said to Rhydian, You belong where you want to belong. He took that to heart and he chose to stay…and because of that he and Maddy got to know each other better and became closer. You could even say, in the long run, you had a hand in what brought them together. So," Shan said primly, folding her arms across her chest and giving Tom a 'Don't chicken out on me,' glare, "are you going to step up and be a good friend or do I have to keep prodding you until you get sick of me?"

Tom threw up his arms with a sigh of exasperation that meant surrender. "Fine, fine. You win, Shan. I'll see if I can pierce that thick head of his." Tom Okanawe strode over to Rhydian, who was seething a little on the sidelines while the rest of the team was celebrating Maddy's amazing goal.

"Hey, mate." Tom said.

"If you're here to give me advice about Mads, you can save your breath."

"No, I really can't." Tom jerked his thumb in Shan's direction. "If I don't at least make the effort, that one's going to nag me to death. You wouldn't want me to die from Shannon-nagging, would you?"

Rhydian grinned reluctantly. "No, I guess not."

Tom took a deep breath and decided to give it his best shot.

"Look, mate, I can't pretend to know what you and Maddy went through in that wolfblood 'dreamworld' place. What I'm sensing—and hey, you're making it bloody obvious, by the way—is that you love Maddy so much that you want to protect her from any possible thing that might ever happen to her…which might sound like a great plan in theory, but trust me, mate, it isn't."

"I don't see what else I can do," Rhydian said miserably. "I love her so much. If something ever happens to her…I'll be so…it'll tear me to pieces. I won't be me anymore. I don't know who I am without her."

Tom sighed. "I hear you, mate, but do me a favor. Look at this from a different viewpoint, yeah?

"Okay…"

"First off, you need to be your own person. As much as you love Maddy, you need to have your own identity separate from hers." Tom put up a hand before Rhydian could argue. "I know, maybe that's a debate for another day. Here's the thing, though, here's the thing I need you to hear." Tom shifted awkwardly. He wasn't usually good at this sort of thing, talking about feelings, emotions, whatever. But for Rhydian's sake he was willing to muddle through.

"So, here's the thing. You want to be Maddy's protective mate? Fine, be the protective mate…but be SMART about it."

"Smart about it. How?"

Tom turned and the two boys looked at the field as the celebration around Maddy began to break up. The players started to return to their positions. Tom realized he didn't have much time.

"Think of it this way, mate. If you smother Mads, then she'll push you away. That means she'll make more dangerous choices and get into more trouble, am I right?"

"True…"

"If you don't smother her…if you let her take some reasonable risks, the ones that kind of come with life in general, then when she really needs help, she'll turn to you. Yeah?"

Rhydian had to nod at Tom's point.

"See? So, if you want to protect Maddy, go ahead, protect her. Have your eyes open, watch out for dangers. But don't limit her choices…because in the end, that's only going to make her want to struggle free of you, and then she really will get hurt." Tom sighed and looked at Rhydian, who was just staring at him.

"Am I making ANY sense whatsoever? Or might I just as well be talking to myself?" Tom said, pained.

Rhydian suddenly smiled, a true, heart-full-and-free grin. "No. I think…I think I get it now. That…helps. More than helps." Rhydian's blue eyes softened as he stared at the grass and kicked at a loose rock.

Jimi cupped his hands to shout from the center of the field. "Oi, are you two lovebirds done chatting? We've got a game to finish!"

Tom ran back onto the field and got into position, but instead of moving into position at goal, Rhydian jogged over to Maddy.

Maddy whirled around with a frown. "Rhydian, get in position. Everyone's waitin'."

Rhydian came to a skidding stop. He consciously focused all his love for Maddy and all his human discipline onto his wolf, confronting his wolf's paranoia. It was an epic, inner battle of turmoil inside the wolfblood boy that no external eye could see…but to Rhydian those few moments felt like a lifetime. The panic inside of him that had bloomed in the dreamworld, he ruthlessly beat it down until he could give Maddy a calmer look.

"Mads, I'm sorry for being the biggest idiot." He suddenly slipped his arm around her lower back and tugged her in close as he dove for her mouth. His lips captured hers before she knew what was happening. Her eyes widened for just a heartbeat before she deepened the kiss. Yet two seconds later she pulled away as her cheeks flamed with embarrassment.

"Rhydian! Everyone's watching!"

"That was kind of the point," Rhydian replied with a wry grin. Then the grin turned into something far more serious. "I mean it, Mads. I'm sorry for being overprotective lately. You were right. I…I hadn't recovered from what I saw in the dreamworld, you dying, and I let it change me into something…I wasn't. Forgive me?"

Maddy's cute face morphed into this adorable look of indecision as she bit her bottom lip. Even so, the two wolfbloods both knew what her answer would be. She leaned up on her tiptoes and gave him a chaste peck on the lips.

"I forgive you. Now get your butt in goal. We have a game to win!"

As Rhydian turned back towards goal, he felt like his heart could launch fireworks into the air and paint the world a thousand different colors. Maybe he couldn't always protect his alpha from all the pain in the world. But you know what? He would quietly do his best, even if that meant putting up with the feistiest, most stubborn she-wolf in the whole wide universe.

THE END

A/N - Hey wolfblood friends,

Chances are very good that I will be writing a sequel, because the dreamworld of the wolfbloods is too fun and interesting not to explore further in the future. I hope you enjoyed this story. Please comment or, if you want, say what you thought of the ending! :) :)