A/N: Thank you for all your support and kind words. I started listening to the podcast Start With This, and I feel a little better now. I think I need to switch things up and try something new when I'm not working on my longer fics. So I have some smaller stories (10-20 chapters) that I plan to work on over the course of the year and post them toward the end of 2021 when they're finished. They're still Pitch Perfect, but I'm playing with some new genres and writing styles - and it's helping to just try something different on top of my usual way of writing and to be keeping those stories to myself while they're still WIPs. I just need to go back to the old days where I didn't care if my writing was good or bad, I just enjoyed doing it.
'Cause I can't burn a bridge that I'm still crossing,
And I can't lose a past that I'm still lost in;
I can tell myself it's over and I need a brand new start,
But there's no such thing as mind over matters of the heart.
- Restless Heart
It only takes two rings for a man to answer the phone. "Julia, how are you?" He sounds happy to hear from her but almost in an anxious way – like waiting for her to call has been one of his sole priorities.
"Hey, Naveen," Julia greets him warmly, "I'm doing okay. I have Aubrey with me. You're on speaker."
"What is that noise in the background?" Naveen asks, "It sounds like you're mowing the lawn – quite loudly and directly into the phone."
Aubrey turns the blow dryer from medium down to low.
"Actually, we're blow drying the cat." Julia rolls Catsy onto his belly and runs the flea comb through his fur.
"Blow drying the cat," Naveen repeats in a mumble, "Is this one of your bonding techniques?"
"Yeah," Julia hums and smiles, "I'm bonding the kid to the cat."
Aubrey just frowns.
"Is it working?" Naveen asks.
Yeah, they're really bonding like superglue here.
"I don't know," Julia answers, "I guess we'll have to see."
"It's not," Aubrey informs her – but the conversation continues on like she never said a thing.
"You know, if I was speaking to any person other than you, I might have a lot of questions. How is Noah doing?"
"He's still in Florida," Julia answers, her smile fading, "He'll be here soon."
"Good, good. Hello, Aubrey."
"Consider me your friend, not your father," Naveen says, "Speaking of your father, I've met him which is how I know why you've chosen to call me 'Sir'. He's not the most pleasant of people, is he?"
Aubrey's head snaps up. Of course he has met her father if they're both on the island...
"But don't worry; what you say to me stays with me. Whatever he says, however, well…let's just say Julia holds my loyalty far more than a bitter old man I just recently met. How are you doing, Aubrey?"
"I'm very sorry for what happened to you," Naveen says, "I can understand if you don't want to speak to me. You're free to change your mind at any time."
"I'll give you two some privacy," Julia says, picking Catsy up as she stands. She takes the blow dryer from Aubrey then offers her a cat brush. "He needs brushed out," she explains when Aubrey doesn't take it.
"Why can't you take him with you?" Aubrey asks.
"He's going to need to stay in here until he goes to the vet," Julia answers, "We need to know he's healthy before we let him around the dog."
Aubrey reluctantly takes the brush.
"Thank you." Julia places Catsy on Aubrey's lap, gives him a scratch, then kisses the top of Aubrey's head. "Holler if you need me."
Just like that – she's gone. Aubrey looks down at Catsy.
"It appears you may have been hoodwinked," Naveen says.
Yeah, Aubrey doesn't think this is about the cat being around the dog either. She sighs and begins brushing through his thick fur. Why couldn't he be a short-haired cat? Those don't get tangled; not that she imagines anyway. She wouldn't know because she has never had nor wanted a cat. He begins purring like a motor engine that has always wanted a human, however, and extends his claws as he begins kneading her leg. If the feeling of tiny pinpricks on her skin is his way of expressing gratitude, Aubrey does not accept.
"I have some questions of my own, but first, what would you like to know, Aubrey? What can I try to answer for you?" Naveen asks.
That's the question, isn't it. She knows it was Jesse. She knows why he did it. Her questions should all be answered. Except…why Luke? Why Nikki? Why like this? Why everything? But how could this guy be able to answer that? Aubrey stares at the floor - no longer brushing, just breathing.
"Maybe we should do this another time," Naveen suggests after an extended moment of silence, "Later on, when-"
"No." They have a chance to talk now, and they're going to talk now. "Do they have any leads on Sophia?"
"I'm afraid not," Naveen answers, "Were you made aware they found her mother's remains?"
Stacie. Aubrey sucks in a deep, painful breath. "Where?" she utters with the exhale.
"In the chapel."
"How?" Aubrey demands.
"How did they find her?"
"How did she die?"
"Before I answer that question, do you really want more images of death inside your head?" Naveen replies.
No. It already feels like she can't go a single second without replaying everything, every person she watched die, over and over in her head. "I want to know how she died."
"She was badly burnt," Naveen answers her, "And dismantled."
"She was in pieces; not all of her was present."
Aubrey puts the brush down beside her then lets her hand rest on top of Catsy when he remains comfortable on her lap. Deep down, she already knew Stacie was dead. She knows Sophia is dead too. But to hear it; for it to be confirmed…
"Is that how they all died?" Naveen asks.
"In that case, can we talk M.O.?"
M.O. What M.O.? "It was chaos, okay? There was no Modus Operandi." People were shot, hung, stabbed, and everything in between. Some of them were killed in front of her, sometimes there was music, sometimes people just flat out disappeared – and they're looking for some sort of M.O. Well, more power to them. "If the only thing you have to tell me is…" - she falters trying to say it out loud – "Then I have nothing to tell you."
"They're restricting access to the island," Naveen says, proving he has more, "No more local police. I have been doing my own investigating as best as I can. The FBI would like the Armed Forces to leave. They're at odds right now. They say they're doing a sweep of the island, collecting evidence and people's remains, and too many people will only get in their way. They only want the Coast Guard to remain as protection against reporters and civilians who may try to access the island. I think the FBI is protecting some dirty agents."
"You think the FBI is that invested in the relationships between two rival A Cappella groups?" Aubrey scoffs.
"You know, I saw your A Cappella group on the news once – after Chloe, and I suppose you too, had graduated. One of your members had shown her downstairs to President Obama. Maybe that had something to do with it."
Aubrey can hear the wry smile in his tone.
"I think if you truly believed this all stemmed from a private matter," Naveen continues, "that there would be no reason that you would desire to be on the phone with me right now reliving your trauma. You want this to be an open and shut case, but you don't think that it is, and, quite frankly, neither do I. If you're looking for somebody to provide you with closure, I'm sorry I cannot be that person. But if you're looking for someone who believes you, you have my attention. Let's touch base in a few days after you've had more time to process and you're ready to talk. I feel from your immediate reluctancy that I may have reached out too soon. Does that sound alright?"
Catsy's fur is warm between Aubrey's fingers and his stomach rises and falls against her hand as he breathes – and she wonders if he has any sense of mortality. It could happen at any time. Maybe even without warning. He could just…die.
"Are you alright?" Naveen asks.
Aubrey snaps back to the world outside of her own head. This is pointless. She wants answers, not a conspiracy theory. "A few days sounds great. Thank you," she says with the same professionalism she uses at the office.
"Have a pleasant evening, Aubrey."
"You too." Aubrey watches the phone screen light up as Naveen ends the call then closes her eyes and hits her head back against the wall. That didn't go nearly the way she had wanted it to. But she's not surprised. She should have expected more bad news.
Stacie's body hadn't been in the chapel when they were all in there, right? They hadn't missed it while they were scrambling around in the chaos? It doesn't matter. Even if it was, the outcome would still be the same. She'd still be dead.
She grabs the phone then nudges Catsy off her lap so she can stand. He presses the top of his head against her leg as she braces herself against the counter. "What?"
He purrs louder in response and weaves around her ankles like he's ready to go with her to wherever it is she's about to go.
It would take a monster not to feel bad. That's what Aubrey tells herself. The only reason she feels guilty about leaving him to spend the night in the cold bathroom alone is because she's not a monster. Not completely anyway. She is starting to wonder a little bit. But it has nothing to do with how she doesn't want him to be lonely, or to think he's been abandoned, or that she's worried he might be scared in this unfamiliar place. He might be getting something good out of all of this, but that doesn't mean he's not confused or that his life as he knows it hasn't been turned completely upside down. "Fine." She places the phone on the counter so she can scoop him up with one arm. Underneath all the fluff, he's actually very skinny. "What? You got so used to Chloe fattening you up that you forgot how to feed yourself the past two weeks?"
Catsy looks at her and mews.
And it occurs to Aubrey that she's having a conversation with a cat.
She fumbles to hold the cat and open the door at the same time. The moment she walks into the living room with him, she has Julia's attention. "He can't just stay in there alone all night," she breaks the silence, "Chloe wouldn't want that."
"You can put him in the bedroom," Julia suggests, "He can sleep with you tonight."
That's not what Aubrey was getting at. She was thinking somewhere more like the living room where other people can keep him company. "No one will be in there either until it's time to sleep."
"You will be if you go lay down and get the rest that you look like you need," Julia says, "I can bring you dinner."
Aubrey's patience begins to feel like it's dwindling. She sits down on the couch next to Beca instead, holding him in her lap. Fortunately, the dog only seems minorly interested, just enough to stop chewing on a toy and look at the guest.
"I guess there's that option too," Julia says.
Beca is completely engulfed by Mario Kart. She doesn't even so much as glance at Aubrey when she sits down – not that Aubrey needs her acknowledgement, but it's still rude.
"How was the phone call?" Julia asks.
"It went well," Aubrey lies, and once again she's picturing Stacie in the chapel – or whatever's left of her. It makes her start feeling sick to her stomach again – really sick. The cat doesn't help. She finds herself thinking about how just after The Bellas watched the video of Pukegate, Stacie had requested they click on a video called 'Guy Pukes On Cat' before Aubrey shut them all up. She's never remembered that before, and she can't even think about how gross that is, because Stacie is dead. She stares at the screen, to see which character is Beca, then reaches over and moves the joystick, sending her off a cliff.
Beca drops the controller onto her lap and looks at her. "Was that necessary?"
"Winner!" Conrad yells.
"That's not fair! Aubrey screwed me up! Rematch."
"I finally won. You can never take that away from me," Conrad replies.
"I was on a winning streak," Beca complains to Aubrey as they restart the race, "Are you even listening?"
Sophia is probably dead too.
She waits until Beca's halfway through the level to reach over and send her off the edge again.
"Are you trying to piss me off?" Beca asks, "Stop."
Conrad pauses the game. "Aubrey," he whines, "You can run your own guy off the road when you have two hands again."
If her hand even works.
At least her hands are still attached to her body…
There must have been enough of Stacie left to be able to quickly identify her.
She plops the cat down beside her and lowers herself down onto her side, draping her legs over Beca's lap rather than trying to scrunch herself up into a small space.
Beca relaxes back and rests the controller down on Aubrey's thigh. "You look miserable again," she says, not looking away from the TV.
Aubrey shakes her head and lets the cat climb over her to kneed her hair – no doubt pulling it out from its braid. She tries to watch their game as Conrad restarts the race again, but watching their cars swerve all over the screen makes her motion-sick, and she finds herself staring at the floor instead until the door opens and Brian walks in carrying bags of food.
"I can't believe you made me pick up takeout just so you can play Mario Kart and not have to cook," he says right off the bat as he drops the bags down on the coffee table.
"I actually won against Beca," Conrad says.
"One time," Beca replies, "Because Aubrey drove me off the road."
Brian freezes in his tracks, staring in Aubrey's general direction. "I hate it," he says, and she realizes he's staring at the cat, not at her.
She nods her agreement.
"I got everybody the same thing, because it made my life easier to do so," Brian says and begins passing out food containers, "You get chicken and rice. You get chicken and rice. Everyone gets chicken and rice." He places a container on the floor for the dog then plucks the cat from Aubrey's hair and puts him on the side table with chicken and rice as well. This is probably a gourmet meal for the cat.
Aubrey doesn't really feel like sitting back up, but she does it anyway. She picks up the container and places it on her lap without opening it.
Aubrey turns her head to see a spoonful of rice being flown at her face like an airplane. She stares at it, expressionless, but expressionless in a way that has Beca turning around and flying her spoon into her own mouth. Once she pulls the spoon back out, she gives Aubrey a tight 'please don't hurt me' smile.
Conrad looks at them then tries flying a spoon at Brian. Both the spoon and the food on it go flying across the living room.
Bark's head snaps up to watch chicken and rice rain down around him, then he makes the mistake of abandoning his food container to eat from the floor. Before Aubrey can grab him, Catsy leaps down off the table and decides to eat Bark's food as well. The situation doesn't go quite how Aubrey imagines it. In her head there is fur flying, blood, cries of agony, fear. She nearly bolts to try to stop it. But instead of a squabble, Bark just stares helplessly as his food is eaten by this new intruder right in front of his face.
There's opportunity in this. Aubrey sees it the moment her heart stops racing. Being the creature of opportunity that she is, she opens her food container and gives it to the dog.
Beca, Brian, and Conrad look at her while Julia presses her lips together and looks at the floor.
"I suppose that was just out of the goodness of your heart?" Brian says.
"Huh. Who would have guessed that we're both such good, kind people?" Brian turns around and places his container on her lap then stands up. "This has nothing to do with the leftover pizza I have in the fridge," he says as he walks away to the kitchen, "You could have just given him the rest of the cat's portion!"
Aubrey clenches her jaw and stares at the unopened container.
"You have to eat," Julia enforces once again, "Regardless of how you're feeling, you have to, or you're going to end up back in the hospital – and they will have you sectioned. Do you understand what that means?"
Yeah, Aubrey knows what it means. "They can't do that."
"Yes, they can. This isn't a scare tactic or a threat. I'm telling you what is going to happen if you don't start eating more."
"Then I'll appeal."
"What does sectioned mean?" Conrad asks.
Aubrey's breath catches and she stares at her food like it's interesting. This isn't something she wants to discuss with anyone, let alone the entire room. It's also not something that's going to happen to her – not now or ever. She stiffens and tries to transport herself somewhere else by willpower alone before anyone can answer him.
Brian walks back in, pizza in hand, and saves her. "It means shut up."
There is only so long Aubrey can sit in the silence that follows before she needs to get up. She carries her food to the kitchen table and sits down out there, thinking maybe that might give her a sense of normalcy and not make food look absolutely revolting. It isn't that she doesn't want to eat; it's not that she's deliberately trying to starve herself. Her stomach just hurts. It just fucking hurts. And it's the worst at night.
She ignores the chicken and picks at the rice – getting lost for extended periods at a time thinking about Stacie before realizing it's been awhile since she last took a bite. It gets cold at some point. People walk in and out of the kitchen, checking on her under the guise of needing another glass of water, she's sure, but they otherwise let her be. Once she has eaten half of it, she can't eat any more, but she also can't bring herself to throw the rest in the trash. Because maybe the thought of being sectioned is worse than any amount of nausea or pain.
But that's not going to happen.
Because Aubrey is stronger than that.
Mind over matter.
She scoops up a pile of rice then tilts the spoon and watches it fall back into the container.
Mind over matter.