The laughter and friendly banter around him should have made him feel happy. Did it? The answer was hard to swallow when he couldn’t get over the betrayal of what Gareth had done.
The situation with Urt had been awful. He was a monster, a creature who had no soul. Yet, this was somehow so much worse knowing Gareth, a true shifter, was a willing participant in deception against other shifters and children at that.
Ben had worked hard to get onto the council into a position to make a difference. He wasn’t elitest, he never had been. Yes, he was a predator, and a confident one at that. There was no way he could say he’d have been happy being any other type of shifter because he didn’t know any different. He was a panther, he could trace his Paraguay heritage back for centuries. Some of his family remained in the forests, preferring a quieter existence.
Should he have listened to his brothers and kept out of things they’d considered weren’t their business?
He glanced about the room. Couples and their children were everywhere. The murderous scene from earlier was far, it appeared, from their thoughts. What would it be like to have a mate, a family of his own? Ben enjoyed playing the field but as he watched those around him. How could he not want that connection… love from a fated mate?
Magnus strolled over to him and slung his arm over his shoulder. “You look like you lost a dollar and found a cent. I thought you’d be pleased we have dealt with Gareth.”
Was he? “You seem to forget I’m going to have to explain all this to the council. Answer for his crimes as the temporary lead.”
“They’re not your crimes.” A hand squeezed his arm, forcing him to meet Magnus’s stare. “Todd will send all the evidence to you and the others once he’s gone through everything.”
“Yeah, I know, he’s already mentioned that.” Magnus shook his head. “It’s just…” he sighed, not wanting to put a downer on things. The days he’d had with Wyatt and Conrad listening to what they’d been put through, Ben couldn’t see this as finished business.
Assassins, those trained by the council, were out there. How many were still getting their chains yanked by those who wanted this program? He asked aloud, getting silence from around the room.
“We’ll work to find out and set them free.”
This came from Alexi, and Ben nodded at the fierce determination. “Maybe you should be the ruling council member.” He wasn’t joking. Right then, Ben did not feel worthy.
“Fuck off, I’d rather cut off a tentacle than deal with all that bureaucratic bullshit.”
Ben chuckled at the not-so-subtle barb at the council members. He was right, there was a lot of bureaucratic bullshit. “Whatever.”
“The question is, do you want to continue to deal with it?” Magnus asked seriously, removing Ben’s humor at the situation.
“I don’t know. Maybe I need to go back to my roots and figure some shit out first before I make that decision.”
Todd pushed up his glasses with one hand while juggling two babies in the tentacles of his other arm. “Where is that?”
The frown that appeared caused Ben’s stomach to knot. “There’s mention of Paraguay in the files we’ve scanned.”
Oh, fuck, my family!
“What about it?” Trepidation at the answer crawled under his skin. His panther alert for danger.
“I’m not sure. To be honest, I was a little more focused on Gareth. I can go look for you, or send the scanned files to your email?”
His panther wanted to see what was in the files. “No, I’ll go and check it out, if you don’t mind me poking about in the files.”
Todd grinned. “Why would I? They were the council’s first.”
Ben felt none of the amusement at that reality. He made his excuses and went back to the large conference room, alone.
The stench of death lingered, as did the scent of Gareth, a reminder Ben didn’t need with what Ajani did to him forever etched into his mind.
He shut his eyes and opened up his senses, letting his panther come forth. Marvin was right. He’d let his human side rule and not always listened to his animal spirit as he should have done. That was going to change.
His resolve matched that of his animal side as he opened his eyes, seeing through his panther. He inhaled, taking in all the scents in the room as he walked over and touched each pile of files. His instincts working in ways that gave him call to regret he’d separated himself from his natural instincts.
A few minutes later, he came to a pile, and his panther growled inside his head, his hackles rising. Ben flicked open the top file, scanned it quickly, then moved on to the next. Nearing the bottom of the pile, his panther hissed. Ben lifted the file, and a bolt of electricity shot up his arm.
Pulling the closest seat towards him, Ben sat. He exhaled a shuddery breath, his panther alerting him to an unseen danger. One that made his innards shake with what he’d find inside the file. Had one of his family members been taken?
He opened the file, and his heart thudded painfully against his ribs. His eyes slitted, his claws unsheathing at the sight of the cats inside metal cages far too small to allow the animal’s inside to move. The surrounding area in the picture barely registered with the torment on the faces of the cats staring out of the bars.
Lightheaded, Ben blinked, his body more panther than human. The buzz he’d felt when he touched the file became a total body experience as his stare moved from one set of eyes to the next, then back. The haunted look in both pairs enraged him and his animal. Part of the paper file shredded at his lethal touch. His eye teeth dropped, and he worked hard to stop his panther from taking control and shifting.
The word reverberated through a sweat-soaked Ben. Every fiber in his body knowing the truth. The remaining parts of the file dropped to the table. He looked blindly about the room, his mind working to process his new reality. Something his panther didn’t need or want when it was ready to hunt, to kill those who dared to cage their… mates.