Chapter 33 - Stone
Stone heard every word confessed in the kitchen as he sat on the ground in the backyard, petting Whiskey as the old dog panted next to him in the shade.
Anger boiled up within him as he kept his thoughts to himself.
He could never understand humans. Bad enough that they killed each other over petty things, but killing their own unborn?
His thoughts whirled. Even if the child had been unwanted, how? How could someone do that to themselves and another being created from their own flesh and blood within? What of their souls? Of their soulmates?
He raked his hands through his hair, reminding himself that soulmates were different for humans. They were still capable of loving others. Was Aubree and Dan’s relationship not proof of that?
Closing his eyes and heaving a sigh, he leaned back against the brick wall of the house and tried to reframe his way of thinking.
Sandra still ached over this “mistake.” It must have been hard for her to do. It must have been frightening. She did it on her own with no one there to help and support her. Her mistake cost her the lives of every child she would have had after, and that had been out of her control. She was repeatedly punished as a consequence of her actions.
And only Aubree had survived.
This was the Goddess’ will, he told himself. She has not only blessed me and the pack but this family as well. She breathed life into her womb. She had seen their suffering and if She could forgive them, so I too must also forgive them.
He cleared his mind, controlled his breathing, and let his senses take in everything around him. Birdsong in the distance. A plane flying overhead. Children laughing and people talking. The warm breeze fanned his face and brought with it different city smells mixed with barbecue and he tried to focus on the heavenly meat aromas instead of all the city odors and noise. He could almost taste the tangy-sweet barbecue sauce on his tongue.
His hand clutched his chest as Aubree’s heartache at her mother’s disclosure clenched within him.
He remembered the first time he felt her heart break. She’d been under this very roof while he was back in Minnesota. It seemed like only yesterday even though it had been about a month and a half ago. He hurt her a few more times after that, but she forgave him. Even when they believed he could never give her the offspring she desired, Aubree forgave him and never gave up hope.
He cradled his head in his hands. Guilt crashed over a century’s worth of anger harbored toward the Goddess. In his agony of loss, he turned his back on Her and She forgave him. She gave him another chance, even if he didn’t deserve it.
An involuntary whimper slipped out, catching Whiskey’s attention. The dog tilted his head, whined, and leaned over to lick his face.
He pulled the dog against his chest and buried his face in his fur. His throat rumbled in a way that communicated his appreciation as he nuzzled the dog’s neck and scratched him behind the ear.
Whiskey settled down next to him and put his head on Stone’s lap while he continued to brush his fingers through his fur, waiting for Aubree to either call him inside or come outside.
Aubree came out some time later with water and nestled herself into his arms. Stone stayed out of her mind, giving her space as she relaxed with Whiskey by their sides.
After ten minutes or so, they went inside.
The cleaning products had all been put away, but the smell lingered.
Steve waved from the front door before he and Sandra slipped outside.
“They’re going for a walk,” Aubree said before going to a door and opening it to reveal a staircase to the basement. “Come on, you can shift down here.”
She let him go down before following after him and closing the door behind her to keep the dog upstairs.
He whined and pawed at the door, but eventually settled down in the living room.
The basement was comfortable enough with slightly worn furniture, a 40-inch flatscreen TV, and light gray carpet and drywall. A treadmill stood in the corner with a storage organizer lining one wall.
She watched him shift, cringing as his bones ground and snapped together. He slowed it down to thirty seconds so she could watch it unfold in some detail, but not in exaggerated detail. He was building up to that. Forty-five seconds when he shifted back and a minute for the next one after that. The slower the shift, the more painful, like ripping a band-aid off rather than slowly peeling it off. The concentration on detail brought the pain into focus with it.
Showing her would help, he hoped. She’d feel his pain, even though he tried to hold it back from her. There was no way around that.
She relaxed once he was in his beast form. He didn’t know what to do with himself. His fur would stick to both the couch and carpet—no way to hide it.
Good thing they had a dog to take the blame.
He curled up on the floor and invited Aubree to lean against him like a cushion and watch TV or put a movie on.
She put the Disney animated movie Beauty and the Beast on while he huffed.
She giggled at his expense, sang along to all the songs, and even compared him to the beast—personality-wise.
[You were such a jerk to me at first!]
[I know. I apologize. I had to protect you. You know that. How was I to know the Goddess had a plan for us?]
She sighed and brushed her fingers through his fur, enjoying the pleasurable, tingly sensation it creating within him. [I know.]
[I didn’t force you to stay with me either,] he added.
She grinned at him. [You kept pushing me away instead and even tried to convince me to leave. You didn’t want me even though you did.]
He closed his eyes, enjoying the scratch of her fingers. [What could I do, Love? Your life is precious. I was afraid to risk the chance. Besides, you were with Dan, a good man, not like this Gaston fellow.]
She giggled. [There certainly wouldn’t have been any competition for you.]
They fell quiet for a moment as Belle tended to the Beast’s wound after he saved her from the wolves and thanked him for saving her life.
[Do you think Dan’s okay?] she asked, her thoughts flitting to her memories of Dan trying to help her escape from the vampires’ lair under the downtown core of Minneapolis.
[I don’t know, Love.]
She stopped stroking his fur and snuggled into him. [I hope he’s okay. I feel guilty every time I think about him. I just hope he can live a good life now... however that may be.]
He closed his eyes and pressed his nose into the side of her waist. [It will take some time, Love, but it will get better.]
Sandra and Steve returned a few minutes later and Aubree paused the movie to scamper upstairs and let them know she and Stone were downstairs watching movies.
Thankfully, her parents didn’t invite themselves to join them. Sandra was probably still feeling self-conscious about her confession.
Aubree came back down and they resumed the movie.
When it was over, Aubree went up to help prepare lunch. Stone occupied himself by shifting back into his human form and running on the treadmill until she called him up.
“That thing still work?” Steve asked when Stone climbed up the stairs and closed the door behind him.
“The treadmill is so loud, we could hear you up here,” Aubree said before Stone could ask what her father was talking about.
Before he could get a word in, Aubree added with the mind-link, [Pretend to wipe sweat from your brow and go to the powder room over there and wash your hands and face. Humans sweat after running for fifteen minutes.]
The corners of his lips twitched. [Even if they’re used to running for miles in the Marines?]
She narrowed her eyes in annoyance. [Yes.]
His lips quirked up a touch. [I was just warming up.]
Excusing himself, he turned and headed to the powder room and splashed water on his face. A minute later, he joined them for lunch. Afterward, Aubree called her friend Brooke and invited her over.
The two girls scampered up to Aubree’s room, where Aubree filled Brooke in on everything that happened in the last couple of months in whispered voices.
Stone sat in the living room with Aubree’s parents, watching a baseball game on TV with her father, while her mother had her nose in a book. He tried to get into the game, but he was bored and wanted to go outside for a run. An hour into the game, things started to get more interesting and he found himself getting caught up in the excitement with Steve. The only downside was that he didn’t know how to dispel the build-up of excitement. He wanted to run for miles and at a human pace, that could take hours.
He finally understood why humans were so rambunctious during and after sports. They needed to channel their energy in more productive ways.
The phone rang and Sandra got up to answer it.
Steve glanced over and Stone followed his gaze when the parents’ eyes met and he heard their heartbeats quicken before they cast fleeting glances his way.
He already knew. He could hear Dan’s voice from across the room.
“Aubree!” Sandra called up. “Phone.”
The females upstairs fell silent for a second before there was some shuffling.
"Hello?" Stone heard Aubree say into another receiver before she mentally added, [It’s Dan.]
[I know,] he replied as Sandra set the phone down before returning to her seat, avoiding his eyes.
Trying to remain relaxed, he turned his attention back to the TV while he strained his ears to the conversation upstairs.
“Don’t hang up,” Dan said.
“Dan, you’re crossing a line calling my parents every day. Please stop it.”
“I know, I’m sorry. I’ve been trying to reach you.”
Aubree hesitated. “About what? Are you okay?”
“I’m... I’m getting by. Don’t worry about me. I’m back in Chicago and know my way around, but there’s this whole underground thing that I never even knew existed.”
“No, no, you honestly have no idea. Minneapolis was nothing. Chicago is the central hub. New York and LA are the east and west hubs. The underground is full of supernaturals, operated primarily by the vampires. Carina’s a big deal here.”
Brooke swore under her breath, but Aubree’s shushed her.
“So, Carina’s here?” Aubree asked.
Dan hummed a yes. “For now.”
“What do you mean?”
“She’s recruited an army, Bree, and they’re moving out tonight at sundown.”
Stone’s muscles tensed.
“Where are they going?” she asked.
“Take a wild guess.”