Chapter 24 - Aubree (Part 2)
“I... hate... you... so... much,” Aubree panted before collapsing onto a bed of wildflowers. “Ow.” They didn’t cushion her fall as much as she’d hoped.
Rolling over onto her back, she thought her lungs were going to explode. Her legs felt like jello. It was high school gym class all over again and she hated every moment of it.
Stone bent down over her, concern pulling on his brows.
It must have taken them half an hour to jog out there.
“I thought you said this place was close?” she whined.
“It is close. It only takes us two or three minutes to run out here.”
She stared up at him. This time, he did have two heads.
Closing her eyes, she filled her lungs and exhaled slowly, repeating it several times before opening her eyes again.
“I hate you guys.”
Stone sat down next to her and pulled her up onto his lap. He brushed away the strands of hair that escaped her ponytail and stuck to her sweat-soaked face. The summer afternoon heat was killing her and Stone had barely broken a sweat.
“I can’t believe you guys enjoy this,” she grumbled.
“I can’t believe you don’t.”
She scowled and looked up at him. He was smirking down at her, enjoying her tortured state.
“I’m all hot and sweaty and gross,” she complained, pushing away from him.
He may not be covered in sweat like her, but his skin was still warm and being pressed up against him wasn’t helping to cool her down.
“It’s okay. You still smell better than humans did during the Middle Ages, back when they only bathed once or twice a year.”
Aubree grimaced. “Ew, don’t remind me how gross my ancestors were.”
He chuckled and pulled her back against his chest and nuzzled her hair despite her efforts to wiggle free.
After a minute of struggling, she gave up and relaxed, too tired to care anymore.
Looking around the meadow, she couldn’t guess how big it was, but it was easily three times as big as a football field. A glassy pond with a couple of ducks in it shimmered a few yards away and the little grassy hill Gavin had mentioned earlier was just beyond it. Squinting into the sunlight, she shielded her eyes with her hand and looked across the pond at the dark brown figure perched near the top of the hill.
“Is that Gwen?”
Stone followed her gaze and nodded. “I would have thought she’d be done, but with her barriers up all the time, I can’t reach her to find out.”
“We can wait. Has she noticed us yet?”
Stone inhaled and exhaled, closing his eyes and listening to the silence around them. “No, I don’t think so. The wind is blowing her scent toward us.”
A poke in her mind and Gwen said, [I see you guys. I’ll just be a few more minutes.]
[No rush,] Aubree replied. [I’m still trying to catch my breath.]
Stone began picking the wildflowers around them and braiding them into a wreath that he placed on her head.
Aubree grinned and shook her head.
“What?” he asked. “I have a daughter. She was, and still is, my princess. Naturally, I had to learn how to make flower crowns to place on her head and worship the ground she walked on.”
She giggled. “You still do.”
He twisted her ponytail around his fingers. “It can’t be helped. She has spoiled me as much as I have spoiled her.”
Smiling, Aubree closed her eyes and snuggled closer to him. “You two are so cute. It’s going to hurt us all if she has to leave us.”
He kissed her head. “I know. I’ll try my best to let her go.”
Nodding, she relaxed and listened to the drumming of his heart as she inhaled his earthy scent mixed with the wildflowers and tall grass that surrounded them. A warm breeze blew against them. The grass tickled her legs as the sun peaked out from behind a cloud and touched her skin with warm fingers. Birdsong twittered in the forest behind them.
As she drew air into her lungs and released it, she could feel what Stone meant about this place bringing a sense of peace and calm. She opened her eyes and looked up to the blue sky with patches of cotton ball clouds slowly passing by.
“Why are we here?” Aubree asked in a whisper as she saw Gwen’s wolf rise up and take off running over the other side of the hill.
“This is my favorite place,” he said. “For all of us. We’ve all played amongst the wildflowers here, conversed here, swam in the pond, stared up at the stars on the hill there. We settled in this territory because of this place. We all feel a sense of peace here. That’s why we buried Adelaide and Arthur here. We could still enjoy everything we used to do and still be close to them.”
His fingers brushed across her arms, sending tingles to dance across her skin. “When I die, I want to be buried here too.”
Her chest tightened. “I don’t want you to die.”
He touched her cheek. “I don’t want to either.”
She studied the calm in his face before he closed his eyes and buried his nose in her hair. His forehead smoothed of creases. His muscles relaxed. She could feel the peace in his soul and the thought of losing him now overwhelmed her.
He was eight-hundred-years-old. How much more time did he have left? How long was he capable of living? Could he really live to be a thousand? Two thousand years old, even?
[I’m not going to die,] he whispered into her mind. [Not anytime soon, anyway. I have too much to live for now.]
She shifted her body so she could wrap her arms around his waist. Leaning against his chest, she nestled her head into the curve of his neck. [Good. If I have to live a thousand years now, I want to live it with you.]
He kissed the top of her head and rocked her from side to side for a minute before urging her to her feet.
She groaned as they rose, her body still too exhausted and achy to move now.
Without uttering a word, he picked her up on his back and carried her piggy-back style around the pond and up the hill.
When they were almost at the top of the slope, he stopped next to two rocks placed side by side in the tall grass overlooking the pond and the meadow below. The grass was flattened between the two stones, where Gavin and Gwen must have reclined during their visits.
He set her down before bending down and sweeping his hands gently over the unmarked gravestones. His eyes glided over the stones with a tender smile.
She hadn’t noticed her eyes misting over until Stone stood before her, looking down at her with worry, as his thumbs wiped the moisture that found its way on her cheeks.
[What’s wrong?] he asked.
She shook her head and leaned against his chest as his arms circled around her. “You’ve come a long way.”
“Because of you,” he whispered.
She grinned into his chest. “You’re so full of cheese. I love it.”
“I still don’t understand your connotation with cheese, but if you love it, then I am happy.”
He brushed his fingers through her ponytail before trailing them across her jaw and tilting her chin up. Her eyes met his blues. The way he looked into her made her body tingle from her head down to her toes.
“I love you,” she whispered.
"Ya luta appa ti,” he whispered back.
She closed her eyes as his thumbs caressed the corners of her broadening smile, remembering the first time he said that to her at the airport. ”Appa appa. More more.”
“Every day I love you more,” he said. “With every smile, I fall a little more in love. With every laugh, my heart dances a little more in love. Every touch, I crave a little more.”
Cupping her cheeks in his rough palms, he tilted her head up further as he lowered his own, pressing his forehead against hers, his breath hot on her face.
“There is no peace in my heart and my soul if you are not here with me. I can’t bear that life again, and I fear for Guinevere’s heart and soul as well. She has suffered enough. What can I do, Love? My pup is hurting and I don’t know what to do to help her.”
Pain twisted her heart. “I know.”
“I need you to be strong, Love. Strong when I can’t be.”
“You know I’ll be as strong as I can.”
He nodded as his thumbs caressed her cheeks again. “I know. And it makes me love you even more.”
His lips grasped hers, bittersweetly.