Before the Fall

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Chapter 9

Sara had looked at Slate with shock and betrayal in her eyes. What have you done? was her cry. Jason tried to hide it, Slate could tell, but he saw that flash of bitter accusation in Jason’s eyes too.

The tense moment had lasted fractions of a second before Sara’s hand flew to her mouth and she launched herself at Slate and squeezed him around the middle. I’m so sorry, Slate, I didn’t mean it. I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.

Jason, too, had put a heavy hand on Slate’s shoulder and said quietly as his wife cried in her brother’s arms, I’m sorry Slate. I’m sorry.

Sure, Sara and Jason were apologizing for their accusatory reactions, but Slate also felt the double meaning of the words. He felt their sympathy for the loss he had just experienced himself. Well, might have experienced. They just didn’t know. It’s hard to believe their wolf would just give up on them after the history that had already been written, but... None of them knew what came next, what it all meant. Slate least of all.

Even today, four days later, Slate is in shock. He feels like he’s walking around in a fog. He’s not...he’s not sad, exactly--he doesn’t have anyone to miss, or grieve. He’s worried for his sister, yes. That much he knows. He’s also tired of his family giving him odd looks, tired of his other packmates innocently asking about the howling the other night, why they could hear him so clearly from so far away, and who else was with him, besides his family. And why was the Alpha’s whole family out there that night anyway, they were asking.

Slate still doesn’t know the answer to that question, and his was a primary account.

What have you done? still rings in his ears, though it was a sentiment immediately retracted.

What have you done?

:::::

“Hey, I’m off to work, love.” No response. Sigh. “Everything will be alright, we’ll make it through, no matter what happens. I love you.”

Jason kisses the crown of Sara’s head and leaves her sitting on the edge of their bed in the dark, face drawn and pained. Every step away feels like his heart is being stretched too thin, trying to pump blood for himself and his wife. Jason hates this time of year for many reasons. The biggest is the anniversary of the death of his first child. Obviously. Every time he sees the back of his eyelids there’s the image of this too-small child, fitting easily in one of his hands. Horrifically still, not breathing--never breathing actually, his brain taunts him. Never even had a chance at living.

Another reason is that it destroys his wife for days at a time. Normally a force as strong as a tornado, Sara turns back into that person she was right after it first happened. Hardly talks, never smiles, tears always brimming. Yesterday she got out of bed and got dressed for the first time in three days and the anniversary hasn’t even come yet. It’s tomorrow, in fact. He’s immensely proud of her for getting so far today.

And yet.

The third reason he hates this time of year is also a reason he hates himself. He loves his wife, loves her. So much so that his heart feels like it beats for hers right now. But there’s this ugly part of him that’s angry at her. Angry that she won’t just do something. Because he has to go to work so they can pay the bills, but she can stay home and let her brother and father pick up the slack at her job. It’s Jason who has to make sure his wife eats enough, keep the house clean and orderly. He has to find a way to lug around this one-thousand pound burden on his shoulders every day when he smiles at his coworkers, fields phone calls. He’s the one who has had one too many experiences where he reveals that he’s struggling with the death of a child, and those friends say something like, Oh, I’m sorry for your loss. At least you aren’t one of those people who lose their kids at two, or five, or ten. Just imagine how bad it could have been.

He stopped sharing pretty quickly.

Sara doesn’t have to deal with any of that because Jason does it for her. He can’t begrudge his wife her mourning or sorrow and he promised to be her strength when she is weak, but who will carry him when he’s weak?

So he goes to the hospital dons his scrubs and his friendly-nurse-smile for the night shift like a uniform. Once there, he can focus his pain and anxieties into healing others, and it makes it bearable until the sunset has given way to sunrise and it’s time to go home. Once he removes his scrubs and his friendly-nurse-smile, all that stares back at him in the rearview mirror of his car is a tired man with empty eyes. He wishes his mind could be as empty as his eyes make him look, but on the inside his mind is whirling so fast that once he grabs hold of a thought, it races away from him and another one replaces it. He has so much roiling emotion with so little opportunity for expression that he can hardly think straight once left alone like he is now. As he drives home in the dim morning light, he realizes he really doesn’t want to go back to that house, with the lights off and a sparkless wife at home. He wants to go back to the house that’s airy, light, and vibrant with her smile.

He wishes he could just tell someone how he’s feeling, but even if he tried, he wouldn’t have words to express it and isn’t that the most frustrating thing?

But then his mind finally catches a thought and holds on long enough for him to process it: he knows someone who can communicate without having to use words.

Before his head realizes it, his hands have turned him down the wrong street to get back home. In a daze, Jason lets muscle memory take him to the Atwood house. He passes street after street in their little werewolf sanctuary, their haven. Supposedly some werewolf ancestors built it with their own hands sometime in the nineteenth century and has been expanded by the generations who have come to follow them. He imagines those men and women now, sweating and dirty with their hands calloused and rough as they work on homes that were yet just frames. How did they know it would work? How did they know it would become the beautiful thing it is now? In this rural area of trees and dirt, rural farmland, how did they hold true to a vision that was yet to be realized?

Jason’s wandering thoughts subside as he pulls over in front of the Atwood home. The problem is that once the car is parked, there’s no muscle memory to tell him what to do next. He sits there feeling like an idiot, but all he can do for a while is stare down at his hands in his lap.

What is he doing there? It’s not like Asher will be able to just look into my eyes and see all my secrets, it’s not a romance novel, Jason grumbles inside his own head. What am I doing here?

“Uh...hello? Anyone home?”

Jason jerks in his seat at the sound of Asher’s voice through the window of his car. There Asher stands, as if he had been able to hear Jason’s thoughts. Once he regains his breath, Jason laughs at himself under his breath. “Yeah, I’m here,” he mutters as he opens the car door. Then louder, “How did you know I was here?”

Asher takes a step away so the car door doesn’t hit him, but otherwise the confusion remains painted on his face. “Well I don’t know if you knew this, but I’m actually a werewolf and my hearing is pretty good. Your muffler sucks, bro.”

Jason leans back up against his car and runs a tired hand down his face. “Well, sorry to interrupt your morning.”

Asher, sensing that this is not just any social call, takes a place next to Jason, back resting on the car and eyes up at the cloudy sky. “No problem, J. It’s tomorrow, right?”

Jason stares at Asher for only a moment before shaking his head once to clear it and sticking his hands in his pockets and letting his eyes find the blue sky as well. The Atwoods never were ones to beat around the bush. “Yeah. Tomorrow. But it might as well have been yesterday, and the day before, and probably the day after tomorrow too.”

Asher hums and tilts his head left and right. “Yeah, sounds like Sara. She’s just like my dad, you know?” he muses. “They both have this intense way of caring. They’re probably the most passionate people I know. I didn’t realize just how similar they are until you guys lost the baby, though.”

Jason knows exactly what comparison Asher is making, but senses that the thought isn’t fully vocalized yet, so he promptly quietly, “Yeah? Why’s that?”

Asher smiles sadly and turns his head to look at Jason. “Well you’ve seen how bad Sara’s been during this week the last four years, right?”

Jason exhales. “Yeah.”

“Well, I know you were kind of close to it because you were dating Sara but...I think even she kept you at a distance where my mom is concerned, for a while at least. What you didn’t see is that after my mom died, my dad was just like Sara is now, only it lasted nearly two years. And even after that, he’d go through months-long periods where he just couldn’t face the world. Like it was too painful just to exist without her.

“It was devastating for us kids too, obviously,” Asher continues, turning back to the sky, adding “and I know it was for you too, in a different way, but I’ll always be grateful for the way it brought the six of us kids together. Sara and Slate especially really stepped up. I...I felt really guilty about that for a long time.”

This is something Jason has never heard about. Though he lived it with them, he only knew Camille for about a year, and there’s certainly some truth to Asher’s assumption about Sara’s unwillingness to expose certain parts of her grief. Beyond his wife, he’s heard very few personal details about that time period from Sara’s brothers, none from her father. He actually saw very little of the man for two years after Camille’s death. “Guilty?”

Asher inhales deeply. “Yeah. I just...I’m not built like Sara and Slate. They’re so...strong.”

“Asher, you’re just as--”

“No, I’m not done,” Asher says not unkindly. “I always saw myself as weak because I couldn’t be strong in the same ways they are, I’m too...sensitive, tender hearted, I guess. But one day in particular I was really struggling and Slate saw right through me--apparently had been seeing through me for a while, just waited for the right time to call me out on it. That day he told me...he told me he wished he was like me,” Asher laughs a little as though the thought were ridiculous. “That my sensitivity was something he admired about me, that I’m strong enough to look myself in the mirror and see the grief and the pain and accept it, admit it, embrace it, work through it. That I’m just like my mom, like how she taught my dad to be, why he was finally able to come out of it.”

Jason contemplates this observation for a moment. He sees the veracity of Asher’s assessment of his “sensitive” qualities. Anyone who knows Asher sees the core of gentleness and kindness in him. He has a way of making people feel understood, cared about. He also sees the veracity of Slate’s assessment of himself, or rather, his assessment of what he lacked. Not many people get to see a sensitive side of Slate, and even Jason, having been very close to the man for years, has a hard time thinking of him as ‘gentle’.

“How does Slate process the pain, then?” Jason wonders.

Asher exhales and says quietly, “He doesn’t. He just tries not to look at himself at all.”

Jason closes his eyes and lets the silence stretch on for a moment, before, “And Sara?”

Asher shrugs with one shoulder. “Slate says Sara got the best of my mom and my dad. That she feels as deeply as my dad, that pain deep enough can knock them down flat, that burdens like that can never truly leave them. But also,” Asher turns and lays a firm gaze on Jason until their eyes meet, “that Sara has this way, just like my mom did, of looking herself in the mirror, accepting the burden, and standing tall enough to carry it.”

“But she’s not carrying it,” Jason bursts out desperately. His eyes well up and he wants to hide from it all, wants to just not feel this bitterness that’s festering inside. “I feel like I’m carrying it for us both right now and I can’t do that forever.”

Asher’s jaw slackens a little and he stares at Jason. Asher rounds on him and pins him with calculating eyes. “Jason, I need you to listen right now, okay?”

Jason blinks, doesn’t know what to expect, but nods anyway.

“You are being a majorly selfish prick at the moment.”

Jason inhales sharply and that bitterness comes crawling up his throat. “Asher, you don’t know what this week has been like. I go to work, I clean the house, I practically feed her because she won’t do it herself. I can’t do it all alone.”

Asher’s lips go thin. “Jason, you’re being blinded by your own grief right now, so I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, because I know you already know the things I’m about to say. Your wife, your werewolf wife, has been dealing with migraines, with an aching body, with nausea, on and off for months at a time. Do you know how unsettling that is? Because I don’t! I can’t imagine what it would be like to experience chronic pain when every paper written on werewolf biology, when every doctor I’ve ever seen her talk to, has zero answers. And that body, the body of a species that’s almost bullet-proof, couldn’t carry a baby for more than five months. She carries those burdens every day, it’s not just a week of pain once a year. She can only take so much before something in her has to give, and if this is the week that things fall through for her, she deserves it.

“And if you’re seriously complaining about her job--Jason, Sara’s job isn’t just the farm. It’s 24/7 because pack responsibilities never go away. I know you know she gets calls at all hours of the day and night from pack members who need help or have an emergency. She and Slate are at the front lines of every issue, they never get breaks. My dad, too. They don’t have days off. So I think it’s justified that one week a year she gets some time to herself. Slate and my dad can handle it. And don’t try to tell me she hasn’t held you when you’ve broken down the last three days.”

Jason blinks and a couple tears escape. He clears his throat roughly. “No. I...I’m sorry.”

Asher exhales and some of the intensity leaves his posture. “Jason, one thing I love about you is that you’re able to compartmentalize, be logical, rational about everything. It serves you well, and I’m grateful for it. But sometimes you compartmentalize so much that you forget to see the big picture too. I know none of this is news to you, you’ve just forgotten to see it for a little bit.”

Jason looks past his bitterness and remembers how Sara let him cry into her hair last night, how the hands she had around his middle kept him from flying apart, how she looks him in the eye every day and tells him she loves him and that they’re going to get through this. The bright spots seem far between because they’re small and simple, but they’re everything he needs. He’s just been...overlooking them. Because in his mind, his contributions meant more. When really, she was fulfilling every need he had. Jason needs to go to work, has to be busy. He feels wanted, needed, valued, doing things for his wife. Maybe it got a little too much this week, but he should have asked for help. She would give it if he asked.

Jason’s throat tightens and his next revelation comes out slightly choked. “I forgot to see my wife.”

Asher sighs and Jason sees sympathy return to his eyes. Asher reclaims his spot next to Jason and slings a brotherly arm around his brother-in-law’s shoulders. “Yeah, you did. But I’m glad you came to see me.” Asher snorts. “If you had gone to see Slate, he would have decked you.”

Jason barks a laugh and wipes the tears from his eyes. “He probably would have hit me just from the look on my face, before I ever got a word out.”

Asher laughs and shakes his head. “He’s definitely an ‘actions speak louder than words’ kind of guy.” Asher pauses. Then, “Hey, man. I do want you to know that you have a right to grieve too. I’m not trying to tell you your feelings are invalid, I never want you to think you don’t have that right. If you can’t clean the house or make dinner, call me. Or our dad, or Slate--any of us. Just don’t put that on my sister. She just grieves differently than you.”

Jason nods. Quietly, “Thanks, Asher. I won’t forget.”

They stand in silence for a long time. Then Asher breaks it with a slow thought out of left field. “Hey, do you...do you really think our wolf would just abandon us like that?”

Jason tilts his head and says matter-of-factly, “Well, we did just get done talking about how I’ve only been thinking about myself in the four days since it happened, so it should be no surprise to you that I haven’t really thought about it.”

Asher huffs. “Well think about it now. After all that effort, would she really give up on us that fast?”

Jason hums and thinks aloud. “She spent about three weeks trying to make second contact with us, based on the timeline of Sage’s episodes, without even a guarantee we’d be able to receive it--and from my understanding of the rumors, she usually doesn’t stick around places very long. But I mean...finding a True Mate is kind of a major factor that she obviously wasn’t too excited about. It might have pushed her over the edge.”

Asher toes the ground absently. “Yeah, but think about it--I mean, think about her as a person, not just a rumor. She goes from place to place healing those in need, her scent signature indicates she has no pack, and who knows what she does when she’s not healing, but I’d wager a guess she doesn’t spend time with any humans either…”

Jason tilts his head with skepticism. “So your point is that she’s lonely and that’s why she’d stick around here?”

Asher purses his lips. “Sort of. Also it just makes a lot of sense to me that she’d have a strong reaction to finally making significant contact with eight people all at once and then all the sudden finding a mate on top of that. All I’m saying,” Asher concludes, “is that if I were her, I’d feel pretty skittish too.”

Jason stares for a moment, then rolls his eyes and huffs. “Okay Asher, I’m not catching your drift, stop stalling and just tell me what you’re scheming to do.”

Asher turns sheepish. “Well I’m not scheming to do anything, I’m just saying I don’t think she gave up on us entirely, I think she just acted in the moment on instinct. In fact, I bet you she’s still out there somewhere in that forest.”

“And you want to go find her,” Jason guesses.

Asher shrugs innocently. “Hey man, you said it, not me.”

“Then let’s do it.”

Asher pauses. “What?”

“You heard me,” Jason says, standing and taking his weight off the car. “Let’s go.”

Asher startles, but follows suit. “What, like, right now?”

Jason rolls up the sleeves of his shirt, and starts off toward the forest like a man on a mission. “It would probably be the only thing that would put a smile on my wife’s face right now, so if you think there’s a chance, I’m not wasting another minute.”

Asher grins and scrambles after him.

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