Before the Fall

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Chapter 11

Day four (present day): One of the things Gray hates the most (and there are many) about this form is that her senses aren’t as sharp. Sure, if she really focuses she can hear just as far and smell just as sharply as she could as a wolf, but she’s not able to track all her senses at once like she could before. She has to really try to smell the orchards in the Atwood territory. She has to focus her gaze purposefully to appreciate the intricacies of the colors of a blue jay. She nearly has to close her eyes to be able to hear--

And she stops dead in her tracks and inhales deeply with her eyes closed and--

Yes, it’s Asher. And…and her mate. Sara’s, that is. Jason.

Gray actually does open her mouth then, to groan her annoyance. She thinks to the moon, you couldn’t have given me more time to practice, oh I don’t know, maybe not being an idiot, in front of my…

Gray’s very thoughts trail off. She had been about to think, in front of my mate’s family. Which is true. Gray has a mate. An intended mate, at least. His name is Slate Atwood. My mate is Slate Atwood and I am about to have to face his family. It’s true, so Gray might as well get used to it. At the same time, it’s not about her mate, now, is it? It’s about Sara. It’s about Sara and her baby and her husband.

I am about to face Sara’s mate and her brother, Gray thinks, getting used to that instead. Then, in a move of surprising coordination, she brings up both hands to slap her face and drag them down dramatically. She groans again. And I am going to look like an idiot.

Might as well get used to that too.

:::::

Asher starts to vibrate with excitement. They found her. They actually found her. He wants to sprint the rest of the distance, but just barely manages to contain his instincts. Especially when Jason grips his upper arm.

“Asher,” Jason says firmly, meeting Asher’s gaze soberly. “I know you’re excited, I know you feel strongly about this, but this is absolutely not the time to start bleeding over into Slate.”

Asher freezes for a fraction of a second, the thought not having entered his brain. Then he exhales and shakes the tension out of his shoulders and arms. “Right,” he says. “Right, we have to be calm about this.”

Jason continues to reason, “And now is also absolutely not the time to scare her off. We have to try not to be overwhelming this time.”

Asher nods like a bobblehead and repeats, “Right. Calm.”

“Okay, you good?”

Asher nods again, more in control this time. Jason finally stops suppressing the wide grin that was battling to overcome his features and lets it fly free. He laughs a little, like a child, and claps Asher on the back. “Alright then, let’s do this.”

Asher bites his lip, smiling. “Wanna lead the way, boss?”

:::::

Knowing she has limited time, Gray decides easily that she wants her den to stay what it has been since its inception: a place of safety and privacy. So she stops her journey to the northern part of the forest and detours further east, closer to pack territory. Gray knows almost every inch of this forest, never having been a restful or stationary soul, and so knows there is a black cottonwood tree not too far away that stands taller than the ones surrounding it. She decides it’s as good a landmark as any to meet the two...diplomats who have come to address her in representation of their family.

She lets herself wear a path in the forest floor once at her destination, pointedly ignoring the only every-so-often stumble. She shakes her arms, rolls her neck, tries to stretch her fingers, working through her developing coordination and shaking out her nerves before the meeting. She wants to try a few words just to see how the air receives it, to see if her tongue, lips, mouth still remember how, but she doesn’t want Jason and Asher to hear her floundering through a basic adult human function. It’s embarrassing.

As they draw closer, Gray draws in on herself, pulling back the jerky movements, slowing the pacing, tries to claim a commanding posture, the way she can as a wolf. She will be still and calm and controlled. Like nothing can ruffle her.

Focus. Control. Calm.

:::::

Asher and Jason make sure to keep each other in check, to keep their pace regular at a moderate jog. Not too slow to get them keyed back up with anxious energy, but not too fast to feed into nervous energy. Not too slow, not too fast.

This time around, Asher doesn’t quite get the feeling that her aura is larger than life, that she fills up every inch of space. The air isn’t thick with her spirit, but it’s still magnetic like he’s never felt before. Asher still feels like they’re in her forest. There’s no mistaking that.

As they get closer, Asher is flooded over and over with calm and peace, it reaches his bones. He’s had to be so focussed to keep his emotions to himself, to not let Slate know anything is out of the ordinary, but the closer they get the easier it is.

Finally, Jason steps forward a pace or two in front of Asher and leads him the last couple paces. Jason stops maybe seven yards away from the figure in the forest, which Asher thinks is a fairly considerable distance, but he’s going to let Jason take the lead.

Obviously the first startling thing they notice is that she’s human. But even wearing a different skin, she’s still unmistakably their wolf, and not just because of the gray eyes--though they are even more startling in a woman’s face rather than a wolf’s. She carries the same energy. She stands tall, calm, still, peaceful. Cool, but not cold. Her energy in person is ten feet tall. In reality, she is still relatively tall, probably two inches taller than Sara who’s already slightly above average, but quite a few inches shorter than Asher. Oddly, one of the first things Asher registers is that she’s barefoot. The clothes she’s wearing are ill-fitting, but surprisingly not dirty, like she has taken care to look presentable. Her hair is nearly the same deep shade as her wolf’s coat, auburn. Not quite red, not quite brown. Her face is expressionless; calculating might be the closest description, but not quite. Asher would place her around his own age, which is...surprising, but not.

Her eyes shine crystal against pale skin. They look especially unnatural, like maybe as a wolf she was fantastical enough to have gray eyes, but as a human...there’s a story behind those eyes. There has to be.

Asher remembers seeing her this way through Sage only a few nights ago when she was summoning them, and she looks the same. He had the same odd feeling of deja vu then as he does now. There’s something all too familiar about this woman. The hair, the cheekbones, the strong build...

Asher wonders if she knows. If that’s why she’s here. If she knows how incredibly intertwined she somehow already is with their pack. But it’s the wrong time and place to even go anywhere near that with a ten foot pole, as much as he desperately wants to.

:::::

Gray stands absolutely still as she lets Sara’s family’s gazes wash over her. It feels like every inch of her skin burns where their eyes have touched. She has not been seen in this form in a year, and before that it was for very, very short stints of time, few and far between. The last time she saw herself in this form was three years ago. She has avoided her reflection like it was the devil, unable to look herself in the eyes. She wonders if they look at her gray eyes and see the same.

To let these people...these strangers see this part of her almost feels like a trespass, but it doesn’t matter. Gray doesn’t have time for the luxury of having feelings like that right now.

Jason breaks the silence carefully, as though she might bolt if the wind brushes her the wrong way. Which, to be fair, is not too far off what happened last time. “Hello. My name is Jason Kelley, I’m Sara’s mate.” He gestures to Asher, next. “This is Sara’s brother, Asher. We’d like to talk, if that’s alright with you.”

On the inside, Gray gulps nervously. On the outside, she inclines her head in careful acknowledgement. Permission for continuation. As much as she knows it won’t be the case, she still has the thought that if she can somehow get through this interaction without having to speak out loud, she will thank the moon every day for the rest of her life.

Jason waits for a beat. He and Asher exchange a glance. Jason tries, “What can we call you?”

Gray exhales. Thinks in her mind, gray, gray, gray. She visualizes saying the word, hearing it. She practices moving her tongue in her mouth once or twice before finally opening her mouth. “Gray.”

She could almost cry with relief at how normal it sounds. Sure, her voice sounds gruff and gravelly, but it comes out completely comprehensible.

If Jason is surprised at the moniker, he doesn’t show it. He just nods, and some of the solemnity leaves his face. “Okay, Gray. Thank you for letting us see you today.”

:::::

Asher watches as Gray just dips her head once in response to Jason’s thanks, and Asher could scream with the snail’s pace they’re working at here

Asher rolls his shoulders, anxious for something to happen. He decides their wolf--Gray--is invested enough that they can afford to be a little more direct without her freaking out. He knows Jason is going to be annoyed by this, but Asher is willing to suffer it. So he comes right out with it. “You can help my sister, can’t you? The same way you helped Sage?”

Gray shifts her gaze from Jason to Asher, and he maybe kinda gets why Jason was being so weird. All the sudden he feels tongue tied, like her eyes are pinning him to the spot. There is a striking reminder that she has all the cards, and they have none.

After a painful moment of consideration, Gray dips her head again. She’s very...reserved, Asher thinks. And not just in words. She moves and speaks like she won’t spare any word or movement that’s not necessary. It reminds him of someone, and not in the familial way this time. Figures that Slate’s True Mate would be as subtle as he is, he thinks.

Breathing through the nerves, Asher crosses half the distance between himself and Gray. He tries not to seem as excited and desperate as he feels, but suspects he falls a bit short. “When can you heal her? We can bring her to you, we’ll help you with anything you need.” He frowns. “Do you...do you need somewhere to sleep tonight? I mean, we can--”

“Yes. I...can help,” Gray mercifully interrupts. Asher balls his hands into fists and has to bite his lip to stay silent while she works her mouth for a long moment before continuing. “I need...time.”

Asher hadn’t realized it, but Jason had come right up behind him and now steps forward to be even with Asher. He puts a grounding hand on Asher’s shoulder before stating calmly, “We can give you time, anything.” He pauses and looks away for a moment before meeting Gray’s gaze again. “But my wife is...she’s hurting. And I’d like to get her help as soon as possible.”

“No,” Gray says.

Jason twitches a little, and Asher feels taken aback at Gray’s first proactive contribution to the conversation. What does she mean, ‘no’?

Asher frowns and opens his mouth, but Jason digs his nails into Asher’s shoulder, so he stops. The two of them watch as Gray’s expression begins to change for the first time. Her brows start to furrow, just barely, and her mouth purses. She looks...not angry. Frustrated?

“No,” Gray says again, finally. “I mean...it will not--be one time,” comes out haltingly.

Jason and Asher exchange a glance. “Gray,” Jason says quickly, “we don’t understand. What do you need from us?” Asher can tell Jason feels like this is slipping between his fingers when he continues a little desperately, “We’ll do whatever we can. Can you help my wife? Can you make Sara better?”

Jason’s nerves are slowly infecting Asher as well, and his fists clench and unclench with unexpressed emotion. “Gray, we--”

“I can. I can help,” she grinds out. “I just need...time. I need...will need.” She stops herself abruptly and most certainly looks frustrated, angry, disappointed. It’s the most expressive they’ve seen her and...quite honestly Asher’s heart kind of hurts for her. This is a person in pain.

“To stay?” Asher tries quietly, replaying the conversation back in his mind. She closes her eyes and relaxes her posture, a minute expression of relief. “You will need to stay…” Asher restates, thinking out loud. “You will need to stay...how long?”

“Until...she--she is here.”

Jason, Asher can sense, is still so desperate for this to go well that he’s acting very out of character. It’s not like him to be so ruffled. He says, “Sara? We can get Sara here right now, if you can just wait--”

No,” Gray leans toward Jason and enunciates very carefully for him and purses her lips. To Jason, whose thoughts are undoubtedly running much too fast, she probably appears angry at him. Asher, more calm--and more emotionally intelligent, admittedly--sees impatience in anger’s stead. Later he’ll reflect and see that he was able to internalize some of the peaceful energy Gray had surrounded herself with in the forest, that magnetic aura. An advantage Jason, with none of Asher’s “magic” receptors, didn’t have.

Jason takes in a deep breath and begins to tremble and Asher can see that this situation is turning volatile very fast. Hastily, Asher takes a step between Jason and Gray and speaks placatingly, hands out in innocence. He speaks with careful words and does his best to communicate feelings of peace and patience through his bond with Jason. “Gray, we’re just trying to understand. Would it be easier if you could show us?”

Gray swallows and appears very uncomfortable relinquishing her last vestiges of control, letting Asher exercise leadership. Still, she says succinctly, “Yes. How?”

Asher glances over his shoulder at Jason shortly before returning a soft gaze to the beautiful hurt animal in front of him. “We’d like to take you to Sara now, if you’ll let us.”

:::::

From the beginning of the interaction all the way until now, Gray had slowly been losing control of the situation, and she hasn’t not had control in a long time. She hasn’t let herself be at the mercy of someone else in three years and she hates feeling it now.

And now something’s happening with Asher, she can sense that his moon-gift is being used in the flaring aura around him, but she doesn’t know in what capacity. It seems...not a conscious decision.

“We’d like to take you to Sara now, if you’ll let us,” he says.

Then he kindly takes her hand, not to restrict or even particularly persuade her, just a gesture of personal connection. The second he touches her skin, she sees…

Dad--why is she seeing him, why would this--working in his office, inventorying his supplies. Gray sees her dad’s office, neat and clinical as ever, and he looks at her and says something, but Gray doesn’t hear it, she’s too fixated on the syringes. Then she sees Mom tearfully looking through a photo album, and a very young Gray walking up the stairs and asking sweetly, sadly, with understanding beyond her years, “You’re missing him again. Do you need a hug, Mom?” and Mom narrows her eyes unpleasantly and says, “Go away, Grace, this isn’t for you.”

Gray feels dizzy enough that she braces a hand, not the one in Asher’s hand--like watching a train wreck, she can’t make herself upset that connection--on the tree behind her, but the images keep coming. Next she sees, Slate giving her a secret, rare smile, and then Sara with a round tummy and a glowing countenance and a smile to match, and next is Gray sitting with an gentle arm across Forrest’s shoulders and he turns his head into her shoulder and sniffs a little, and it’s so strange for Gray to see herself through someone else’s lens.

And finally, Gray stands face to face with Slate and no words are exchanged, but then Slate bridges the distance between them and takes Gray into his arms and there it is. There’s that acceptance and understanding Gray has never really felt.

And then her mind is her own again and she flickers her gaze between an awed Asher and a still unsettled but significantly more patient now, Jason. She thinks about being in her dad’s office, about her mom’s dismissal. And then she thinks about what she’d seen with the Atwoods, how the two worlds are galaxies apart from each other. And Gray...Gray wants to be in the Atwoods’ orbit.

“Okay,” Gray says slowly, carefully. “Take me to Sara.”

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