Author's Note: Last, but certainly not least, this story gets an update! You haven't forgotten about it, have you? I haven't worked on it much, but it's all planned out and it'll probably have. . . one more chapter, at the most.

In any case, there's the updates. I'm about a month late for my actual anniversary on the site, but I've had finals and tryouts and such, so I think I deserve a little leeway :)

The Fourth Day

As it turned out, Rino was already asleep when I returned from the city on that third day. In the time it took me to return to the pack's village, the sun had set and darkness engulfed the sky. The village was quiet and still, its inhabitants sleeping or otherwise settling down after a long day. I'd scarcely been beyond my own home this late, so the empty village was a new sight to me. The silence was eerie; I was used to the life and energy of the pack members. Now that there was no one around, it seemed like a ghost town.

I made way to my own cavern, keeping a watchful eye out for anyone left roaming the village- or, heaven forbid, Rino- but I did not see anyone else. I turned back out to view the village as I reached our overlooking cavern; the whole scene was rather peaceful. It was calming, looking out into the night, listening to the soft murmur of the wind in the trees and the nocturnal Pokemon going about their business.

I paused. Never before would I have felt this sort of serenity, been able to see all the beauty that I normally paid no attention. It was strange, like a new door had opened and allowed a new sense of. . . peace to fill me.

Pondering this new feeling of tranquility, I turned and headed into my home, and there he was. Rino. He had returned, at last, and he was already sleeping soundly in our den, as though he had done nothing wrong. I felt sick to my stomach, but there was some sort of relief in the back of my mind that he had returned at last. He was not a good mate by any means, but he was my mate. And I was sure I loved him. . . or, at least I had at one point.

I watched his sleeping form for a moment, his peaceful expression and the subtle rise and fall of his chest as he breathed visible in the moonlight. He was an evolved form of his species, a long-horned Nidorino, a change brought on when he defeated the previous pack leader. His body was longer then my own and several inches taller, and covered in pinkish fur and rough, jagged spikes on his back and the tips of his ears. His ears- one with a small nick from when he was a child, I remembered nostalgically- had remained long which, in addition to large, sharp teeth, was traditional to our species. The biggest change of all in his evolution was the pointed horn between his eyes, which had elongated by several inches and has been his claim of dominance over the pack ever since. He was, after all, the only member of the pack with a horn.

I sighed dejectedly and crawled beside him, sidling up into the curve of his body. He was warm and comfortable, his gentle breathing was calming and could almost put my mind at ease. I closed my eyes and I could almost imagine his warm body was for me, a front leg wrapped around me in a loving embrace. He would kiss the top of my head and murmur about how he loved me, then we would let the rustle of the trees lull us into a deep sleep.

Of course, those days were gone now, but I didn't mind pretending.

----------

It must have been some sort of blessing, waking up early. I knew I should have dreaded waking up because I would have Rino to answer to, but when I opened my eyes sunlight was barely peeking over the horizon and I was still pressed against Rino's chest. I closed my eyes again, stretched out and sighed in content. I would have been more tan happy to continue to lie here, but I know Rino would wake soon, and I certainly didn't want to be around when that happened. So slowly I rose, being careful not to rouse my mate.

I stepped out of our home and into the early sun. It seemed that no one else had stirred yet; the sounds of my sleeping pack came from below. I began to walk, as if my feet were possessed. I didn't know where I would go, I didn't think. I just went.

I found myself walking though my pack's village, out into the forest. I looked at my pack's homes as I passed, imagining the happy families inside. I walked past the trees, past the blooming berry bushes. I found myself stopping short of the pack's territory, taking that one last step over the threshold. I saw the city in the distance, looming closer, the tall dens and empty walkways starting to show life.

I was at the entrance to the city, wondering what I was going to find here. Time seemed to stand still, the residents of the city beginning to show up outside their homes and rushing by in loud, metal devices on their black roads. I didn't know what I expected to see. Maybe I wanted to see him one last time.

Jack.

I stole a glance down at the corner where we ran into each other. Twice. Two times in two days seemed so unlikely as it was. . . what was once more, one more day? Cautiously, I took a step closer. Maybe he would be there. Maybe we would run into each other again. Maybe I would see him once more, and I could return home before Rino woke up. With every step I took, I grew more confidant that he would round that corner, that we would have one last encounter. The corner drew closer, I held my breath.

The Raichu never came. I rounded the corner, but there was no one there, human or otherwise. I waited for a moment, looking all over as if expecting him to magically appear from nowhere. Of course, he didn't.

I sighed, suddenly feeling very foolish. Why did I think he would be here again? Why did I expect to come to this corner and run into the curious Raichu? And on top of that, why did I think it would be a good idea to come back to the city anyways? If I hadn't invoked Rino's wrath by now, I surely would be by coming here.

I sighed again, feeling as if a great weight had been set upon my shoulders. Gone was the elation I had felt these last few couple of days. Gone was the feeling of peace, of calmness, of serenity. It had been a welcome respite, I suppose, by I couldn't help but wish that it didn't have to end. Reluctantly I turned to head in the direction of the park.

What I failed to take note of was the height difference between the path and the black road below. At the corner there was about half my height's distance down to the street, which I unknowingly tripped over in my distracted state of mind. I gasped and gave a meek cry as I pitched headfirst towards the pavement.

I anticipated hitting the ground, but the jarring impact never came. Instead I was supported in midair, two feet on the path and the rest of my body suspended over the road by something. . . warm. And soft. A quiet chuckle came from above me.

"We have to stop meeting like this," Jack smiled down on me as I looked up, his visible eye beaming. Where he had come from, I did not know, but he had managed to catch me as I tripped. Jack chuckled again. "So, what brings you to the city today? More leaf-gazing? Fresh air? Or do you just enjoy tripping over sidewalks?"

I smirked, his good humor taking serious steps to improving my mood. "Nothing that simple, I'm afraid." It wasn't like I could tell him I came to the city to see him again. But I had to admit, seeing him still around was a pleasant surprise. "I could ask you the same question. What are you still doing here, Mr. Wanderer?"

Jack suddenly seemed distant, his single eye unfocused. "Did some thinking last night. Decided I hadn't yet experienced everything the city had to offer."

"Oh?"

"Indeed." He smiled, bringing one paw up to my head and patting it softly. "I've got a feeling. It'd be a shame for me to miss out on anything." His paw carefully slid over to a rough patch on forehead- the spot that was once my horn. He rubbed the scar gingerly, tracing his fingers gently over the spot. He seemed entranced, his eye transfixed to the old wound.

"Like it?" I asked him. He stopped immediately, as if just then realizing what he had been doing, and grinned at me sheepishly.

"Sorry, just. . . lost in thought." He smiled apologetically then turned his attention back to my head. "Every scar has a story, y'know? I can't help but wonder. . ." He trailed off, spacing out again, lost in his own mind.

I frowned. "Is this behavior normal for you Easterners? To feel someone up then question them about old injuries?"

After a long moment of silence, he chuckled. "I apologize, of course. Listen to me, sounding like an old man. I won't ask you to explain if you don't want to." He gave me a kind smile and lifted my back up onto the sidewalk, placing me firmly on my feet. I began to thank him, but he interrupted: "We all have our own scars."

As I contemplated his cryptic words, a few vehicles rumbled noisily by, the city's inhabitants beginning to leave their houses. I cleared my throat, trying to think of something to say. In the end, all I could think of was to play along. "All have our own scars, huh?" Jack nodded. "Even you?"

The Raichu nodded vigorously. "Oh, yes, especially me. Life on the road is a tough one." He dismissed the topic with a laugh and a wave of his hand.

I laughed along with him. It was hard to picture him with something as disfiguring as a scar. I looked him over once, confirming my thoughts: no visible marks. His body was essentially flawless, except for. . . "So where are yours, then? Beneath the bandana?"

His laughter stopped instantly, like a candle snuffed out by the breeze, and silence quickly settled in its place. I stopped too, shocked by his sudden change in demeanor. Jack opened his mouth to say something, closed it, scratched the back of his head awkwardly. I shrunk back, suddenly feeling overwhelmingly small, incredibly stupid.

"Erm. . ." I stumbled over my own words, my tongue spontaneous and irritating in its refusal to help me. This made me feel worse and I took a step back, as if it might have alleviated the awkwardness of the situation. "I'm sorry. . . and after you said you wouldn't question me, I'm so sorry, Jack-"

"It's alright, it's alright," he said with a sigh. "It's fine. I never should have brought any of this up. It's just. . ." He paused, biting his lip in concentration. His good eye was looking past me, preoccupied by some distant thought.

"Jack?"

"Yes," he turned back to me. "Yes, they're. . . beneath this bandana." I stared, confused, and he clarified. "My scars. But they are terrible and ugly, so I hope you will understand that I am apprehensive to share them."

"Of course, it's not a problem." I gave him a smile which I hoped showed understanding, despite my curiosity. The look of relief on his face told me I had hit the mark and it did myself a world of good. I never would have truly guessed the purpose of the bandana was to hide his face from the world. Obviously whatever caused these scars was very painful to him, and I didn't want to press. Nor, I suspected, would I have wanted to see them anyways if he was so avid to hide them.

"Thanks, Madeline," he said, smiling softly. He adjusted the headwear in question, fitting it snugly around his ear. I giggled-- the very tips of his curly-Qs poked out of the bandana, giving him the image of having antennae.

"It's a very curious cloth," I noted. Jack raised a brow at me, questioning. "The bandana."

Jack nodded, adjusting the cloth once more. "It's from out east. I, uh. . . acquired it from a trader." He was smiling broadly, his eyes beaming with pride in the strange headwrap. "Nice material, isn't it? Unique pattern, I've been told. . ."

I smiled back as Jack told his story. He told me of al the incredible places he had traveled: cities with tall, sleek buildings the shone like silver, vast ranges of snowy mountains, stretches of forest with trees so thick they blotted out the sun. His eye shone as he spoke of these fond memories, his tone growing more rapid and excited as his tale grew in length.

I was more than happy to listen, to learn of all these lands outside my den, outside the city. I would never see these places myself- this I knew and had long since accepted- but it was nice to close my eyes and picture them as described with such avid fixation.

"What about you?" I opened my eyes. Jack was watching me expectantly.

"Huh?" The question caught me off guard.

"What's your story?" Jack chuckled. "I'm sure you have some interesting stories to tell."

You don't know the half of it, I thought. If I relived all my life's interesting anecdotes, all those memories I had with Deera and Rino and the rest of the pack, the good and the bad, we could very well have spent all night in that spot.

That's when I noticed it had begun to get dark. The sun was well on its long westward journey, and soon the dark serenity of the evening would settle upon us. Jack saw the hesitation in my eyes and frowned.

"You have to get back to your mate?"

I nodded. "I'm terribly sorry. . . it's getting late, though."

The Raichu sighed and folded his arms. He seemed more than just disappointed; he appeared to have been knocked down a peg or two, thrown off his proverbial Ponyta. "That's a shame. You know all about me now, but I know barely a thing about yourself."

I blushed in spite of myself. "I am sorry. . . I wish I had more time to speak with you." I gave him a smile. "It was wonderful seeing you again, though. It was very lucky to run into you here."

As I turned and began heading back the way I had come from the forest, I felt Jack's hand on my shoulder. Looking up, I saw he was looking back down at me, wide smirk on his face.

"You owe me a story."

"I. . . what?"

His grin widened. "I still haven't heard your story. You owe me that much, at least."

I frowned at the Raichu. "I know Jack, I'm sorry, but I have to be going-"

"Tomorrow?"

". . .huh?"

"Tomorrow."

I frowned. "Tomorrow?"

He nodded. "Tell me your story tomorrow. We can meet here, alright?"

I sighed. "Jack, it's not that easy. I have difficulty just getting away from my pack at all. It's a miracle-- no, it's unheard of that I've been able to come down three days in a row."

"Come at night, then. Discreetly." Jack shrugged, as if he were speaking of talking a walk in the park instead of purposely sneaking away from my mate and pack in the middle of the night with the intent to meet a mysterious male stranger. Doing that, I would be no better than my mate.

"I wish I could, Jack. . . but I can't sneak away from my mate. It would be wrong." I sighed and looked away from Jack, away from his convincing puppy dog eyes. "It's not just something I can do. . . I'm sorry."

Jack shrugged. "Alright, have it your way." He gave me that winning smile of his. "I'll still be here, regardless. Just in case I've changed your mind."

I laughed, shaking my head. "Go ahead and keep deluding yourself." I smiled back at him. "Alright. . . It's been wonderful meeting you, Jack. Thanks for the stories." I watched him for a second longer, but I knew I had to be going. I gave him one last smile. "Goodbye, Jack."

"Goodnight, Madeline."

----------

The Fifth Day

Rino stalked into our home the next day, having not been home when I arrived. I was angry to find him absent, but relieved, too. Perhaps he didn't notice my absence, and I would not be forced to explain myself.

Or worse, lie to him. I'm a terrible liar.

It was still early evening when Rino arrived, head down but meandering in as if. . . well, I suppose he did own the place. I was busying myself with cleaning our den as I normally would, half to avoid arousing suspicion and half secretly hoping it would put me on my mate's good side, at least for the time being.

"Hello, love," I said, giving him a smile.

"Mmph," he grunted, moving past me and deeper into the den. I let him go, deciding wisely that he was best left alone for the time being.

"There are still some ripe berries," I said to him, pointing to the small wicker basket filled with the fruit, resting where I had left it near our makeshift straw bed. "It's a good harvest this year. Perhaps I could go collect some more. . ." I trailed off, watched Rino out of the corner of my eye to gauge his reaction. If he was bothered by my last statement or, indeed, if he had heard it at all, he showed no indications.

I decided to throw caution to the wind once more, and took a step closer to my mate, and then another.

"We've got plenty in the food reserves," I said, making small talk. Any kind of contact with my mate at all was good, whether he interacted or not. I smiled at him. "Perhaps Deera and I could take some of the extra food and some berries and make a nice meal, hm?" I kissed him lightly on the bridge of the nose. He glowered back at me from beneath half-lidded eyes, red from lack of sleep. Long night, I suppose.

I sighed inwardly but retained my outward cheer. "I think it's time we treated ourselves to something, don't you think? Something good." I smiled wider. Anything to help. "Oh, not to say that what you provide isn't good, dear, just-"

"So where've you been?" The question, while not unexpected by any means, still caught me off guard.

"Wh-wh-what do you mean?" I stuttered. "I've been right here, waiting for you to-"

"Yesterday," Rino grunted, still laying on the floor but his gaze locked right onto me. His eyes- a cool, beautiful blue, rare for our kind- stared at me with quiet intensity, terrifying, piercing right into my soul. These same eyes, soft to comfort me, filled with tears in our saddest hours, bright and joyous in our happiest, had long since become hard and icy. "And the day before."

I tried to keep a straight face with my mate, but I felt the heat as my face flushed red. "The day before I was out gathering berries again. You weren't back yet, so I figured you wouldn't mind. . ." I trailed off, my voice failing me completely. He was the one who was off with his mistress, and I was apologizing for going out! And it wasn't like I had done anything wrong. Meeting someone new for a change had been a wonderful experience. Yet it was I who was the one subject to Rino's inquisition, and not the other way around.

"And yesterday?"

"I only-"

"What you only did," he interrupted, growling, "was leave without my permission. Before I woke up, even. I never got the chance to see you."

I shuffled my feet, somehow feeling embarrassed for being put on the spot. "The harvest is good this year. I just wanted-"

"Then send someone else!" Rino thundered. Though he was still on the floor and I on my feet, he seemed to tower over me and I felt small and meek before him. "You don't have the right to just. . . just leave like that! Has it ever occurred to you that I may want to see you sometimes?"

Not in the least. "I'm sorry, Rino."

Rino stood, those cold eyes still locked on me, now in a solemn glare. "That's why you ask me for these things. So I can know where you are. You worry me, Maddy."

He was using my old nickname, his special name for me, the one he only let Deera continue to use beside himself. It worried me that he would use it again so suddenly, especially considering that he was still glaring daggers at me. He took a step and before I had time to react I was shoved onto the floor, and he was standing right above me, breathing hard.

"Don't you dare do something like. . . like that ever again! Never, you hear me!?" Rino shouted at me, accentuating his words with a sharp smack across the face with one of his front legs. I recoiled from his blows, retreating back farther into our cave.

"Madeline, you are mine," he hissed, breathing harder than before. He had not followed my retreat, standing instead in the same spot as before. This blocked any hopes I had of escaping, but that didn't matter. It's not like I had the strength to pull myself off the floor.

"You belong to me, Maddy. My mate." Rino growled and turned his back on me, facing the entrance to the cave. "Starting now, you will not leave our pack's land without my permission. And no more guests in our den. And no leaving the den after dark. Ever. Understood?"

"Rino. . ."

"Do I make myself clear, Maddy?" The calmness in his voice was what put me off the most. He looked over his shoulder, icy blue eyes haunting and empty. "Do you understand me?"

I couldn't manage to utter more than a squeak, so I satisfied him with a nod. He grunted, watched me a moment more, then turned back to the cave entrance. "I'm going out. Checking on the pack." A pause, then, "You're not to go anywhere, understood?"

I gave another squeak. Satisfied, Rino stormed out of our cave without another look back, leaving me huddled terrified in the back of the room. I listened for a moment to be sure he walked away, then sighed a heavy sigh of relief and abruptly burst into tears.

I wished someone could be there with me. Someone to be there to help me to my feet, to assure my that everything would be alright. Anyone would do; Deera, the old Rino- my Rino-, even Jack!

I sniffed, wiping dry my eyes with the back of one paw. One side of my jaw ached and I could already feel it swelling, but I was otherwise okay physically. My mind raced over Rino's words and tried to make sense of what had just happened. Drawing sense from Rino's outbursts was as fruitful as trying to capture the wind; there was no point, as it was impossible and you would hurt yourself in the process.

But he was going out again. To one of his little whores, no doubt. I felt like I wanted to be angry with him, but something held me back. Instead I felt upset with myself and my own inability to stop him, and saddened to see my Rino acting like this. He was acting crazy, but he hadn't always been. And he was obviously hurting somehow, mentally or emotionally.

I groaned in frustration, slowly rising to my feet. Rino would be gone again tonight, giving me at least some sort of respite. I could go visit Deera, seek out the comfort I so needed. But my mind was still mulling over another idea.

I couldn't hurt Rino, but he had left me no choice. His controlling behavior, his violence. . . It was getting out of control. I needed an escape. As much as I loved Deera, it needed to be found elsewhere, somewhere out of the confines of the pack. Somewhere I could think freely and speak openly without fear of my mate. Somewhere I could just talk with a friend, I could clear my mind.

And I knew where to find it.

----------

It was not much later that I left, but already it was getting dark. There was still enough light to see, and I knew the path well enough to traverse it easily. I navigated carefully through the pack's lands, though I was certain Rino would not notice. I found my way to the forest, found the worn path leading down, past the berry bushes and undergrowth until at last I broke through the trees.

I thought finding him would be the biggest problem, but he had been true to his word. He had stayed in the spot he had indicated, all day perhaps. I approached him sheepishly, unsure of what to say or do, but all my apprehension melted away when he smiled and waved at me.

"Hello, Madeline," Jack called, grinning wide. "I thought you'd come."

----------

The Eighth Day

We made an agreement that night. We would meet every night in the same spot to talk or explore the city or just relax. It would become something of a temporary tradition so long as Jack remained in the city, something to look forward to and get me through the day when it became difficult.

Rino was scarce those first few days, as well. He was never around at night and returned midday the next day, which worked well for our for me and Jack and our nightly meetings. During the day, I tried to make peace with my mate but he was indomitable in his refusal to forgive me of crimes I did not commit. Thus our interaction was degraded and limited to empty words from me and icy, accusing stares from him.

Rino occasionally went on tangents like this, as if accusing me of something gave him some sort of justification for his own alleged infidelity. He would act distant for a few days then return to the way things were before, so his behavior now did not worry me. I wanted so to love my mate, and though I knew he still loved me, he made it difficult sometimes.

It wasn't until the eighth day that I suspected otherwise. Rino had, as usual, left the previous night before our evening meal. And, as usual, I waited until sundown and left our pack's land to go visit Jack in the city. Jack and I had a fun evening; we gathered some wild berries and fruit from the park and had a meal beside the holding pond. I asked Jack about the many places he had been and he asked me what sort of places I wanted to go someday. Having no knowledge of the outside or never having had any desire to leave, I told the Raichu that his descriptions of his travels were adventure enough for me.

But the next day I awoke and saw that Rino had not returned. It was not the first time he did not return after spending the night away, but that day it angered me. I waited impatiently for him to return, but when he did not return by sundown, I left our cave in a huff. I stormed angrily through our pack's land, forgetting to move silently, possibly alerting all my packmates to my presence. I did not care at the time.

Jack was waiting for me at the same corner we first met, but his smile vanished as soon as he saw my face.

"Madeline?" he asked. I figured anger was such a foreign emotion to me that wearing it made me no longer look like myself. "Madeline, what's wrong?"

Jack sounded genuinely concerned. It hurt a little when I realized I was making him worry. I sighed. "It's nothing."

"Nothing?"

"Nothing," I confirmed with a nod. I took another deep breath and pushed away the anger into some dark corner of my mind where, I hoped, it would never need to surface again.

"You're an awful liar, Madeline," Jack said pointedly, folding his arms.

"I don't want to talk about it right now," I said, just wishing he would drop it so I could forget it as well. "It's not important."

Jack stared at me for a long moment, but eventually he shrugged. "Even if that's the case- which I don't believe for a second, don't you worry- I know the perfect thing to cheer you up." He grinned wide and gestured with a paw to follow. He turned and headed across the road and into the city. Carefully, I followed him.

Jack led me down a path similar to the one to reach the park at the heart of the city, but eventually led me in a direction I had never gone before. We traveled down tight side streets and alleyways until I could not recognize any of my surroundings, and just when I thought we had gotten lost, Jack stopped.

"It's through here," Jack said, pointing to a hole in the bottom of a brick wall. It was small; it looked like I would barely fit, much less Jack. Had I been walking this path myself, I would have completely overlooked it.

"What's in here?" I wondered aloud, peering into the hole. On the other side, all I could see was darkness.

"Climb through and find out," Jack answered with a smile. He waved his hands. "Go on, it's safe. Just follow the dirt path on the other side."

I hesitated just a moment more but decided to trust the Raichu. I crawled through the hole head-first, struggled a bit to get under, but with a helpful shove from Jack I made it through, tumbling out into an open grassy area on the other side of the wall. I was surrounded by small shrubs and I recognized a few tall trees from the forest. A few seconds later I was joined by Jack.

"Where are we?" I asked him, but instead of answering he pointed down a small dirt path heading deeper into the trees. Without another word I followed the path.

The path led through the trees for a while before I felt the path slowly leading up. I hesitated, but a soft nudge from Jack encouraged me to continue. I followed the path until the shrubs and trees opened up to a small hill overlooking the city on one side and my pack's land on the other. It was like a perfect balance between two lives, and from this vantage point I was above both.

"Incredible, isn't it?" Jack appeared from the brush behind me, taking a seat at my side. I nodded blankly, gazing out over the wonder laid out before me. "I found it while exploring the city." He paused. "Does it help your mood at all?"

"Hm?" It had, in fact. I had completely forgotten that I was angry with my mate.

Jack chuckled. "I'll take that as a 'yes'."

"Jack, this is. . . it's incredible!" I shook my head in amazement. "How did you ever manage to find something is magnificent as this?"

The Raichu grinned. "Oh. . . I'm often very lucky in that sense." He paused, watching me, as if waiting for me to say something, but I was too entranced. He cleared his throat. "I don't mean to pry, Madeline, but you seemed very upset earlier. Would you mind if I asked why?"

"Yes, I would mind." I shrugged apologetically. "Sorry."

"It's not healthy to keep this kind of thing bottled up, Madeline."

"I'm not bottling."

"Madeline, I don't think-"

"Jack," I said sternly, staring him right in the eye. "Drop it, please. I obviously do not wish to speak of my family life."

I did not realize at first that I had let more slip than I had realized. It was not until Jack frowned and leaned forward to give me a soft hug- a warm, friendly hug- that I realized the depth of what I had said. "Maddy, I didn't realize. . . I'm so sorry." He backed off, but still held me at arm's length. "I apologize. I won't ask any more of you, I promise."

I couldn't tell if it was his sincerity, or his genuine concern for my wellbeing, or initial shock to hear my nickname- been used for so long by only Deera and Rino- used in such a kind way. Whatever it was, it broke down whatever wall was preventing me from letting my anger out. I sighed.

"It's my mate, Jack," I admitted. Jack seemed surprised, either that it was my mate or that I decided to tell him anyways, but his brow furrowed into concern once again.

"What's wrong with your mate, Maddy?" He smiled at me. "You can tell me. I'll listen."

I tried to avoid it, but dammit, my eyes began to tear up as I spoke. "I love him, Jack, but. . . I don't think he loves me anymore." It hurt, almost physically, to hear it aloud from my own mouth. Rino. . . did not love me anymore?

"Don't be silly, Maddy," Jack tried to comfort me, rubbing one of my legs gently. "I'm sure he loves you all the same-"

"He cheats, Jack," I said. "And. . . it's obvious. He doesn't even bother to try to hide the fact." The words were spilling out now; somewhere along the way the dam had erupted and the flood it had held back was coming on full force. "Everyone knows about it, but I don't do anything to stop it. I just go on, pretending that everything is okay, but who am I fooling?" I sighed. "My love life is a wreck. . . my mate has all but abandoned me, my pack hates me, and I have nothing to my name but one good friend."

"Two," Jack corrected, smiling. "I'm your friend, Maddy. I'm here for you." He hugged me again, tighter this time and a million times as warm. He was comforting- no, beyond that. His warmth filled the hole that had felt empty for a long time.

"That's what happened to my horn, Jack." I said, my face still buried in his chest.

"Mm?"

"My mate did this." I backed away from him, pulled reluctantly from his embrace. "And to everyone in my pack. Forced everyone to take a stone and. . . grind our horns down completely."

Jack pulled me to him again. "Maddy. . . he sounds awful. This can't be good for you. . ."

"I love him, Jack. . . and that's the problem." I sniffed, now completely unable to halt the flow of tears.

"Maddy. . ." Jack held me out in front of him again, his eye deep-set with worry and concern and. . . a look that I had not seen in a long time.

He leaned in and we kissed, and it was wonderful.

A/N: And there we have it, readers! Three updates and 16,753 words later (and only being a tad late. . .), here we are! Hope you enjoyed the ride, folks, 'cos I sure did.

Phew. I'mma go sleep now. Keep it real!