Before the Fall

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Chapter 13

Slate clenches and unclenches his jaw as he consciously relaxes to help keep Sara calm and then gets swept away in his own thoughts again before realizing he has tensed once more and the cycle goes and goes and goes.

Something is definitely up. Asher’s energy is all over the place, but if he doesn’t want help, Slate can’t give it. Sara, sitting under his arm on the couch, has one leg tucked under her and the other tapping a staccato rhythm on the carpeted floor. Biting a nail, she asks for the third time, “Still nothing?”

Slate sighs, draws upon his endless patience. “Still nothing. But Jason is definitely with him, and definitely okay.”

Sara nods like a bobble head, eyes focusing on something a million miles away. They’re sitting on the sofa in Sara’s living room, the room the front door opens up to. While nearly identical in layout to Slate’s house, Sara’s looks almost nothing like his. That is to say, it has actual personality and furniture beyond the absolute necessities. They’re sitting in front of the flatscreen TV mounted on the wall, some rerun basketball game on mute. Several feet to the left of them is the small kitchen and round table perfect for four or five guests and no more. Down the hall that opens between the living room and the kitchen there are four doors. One to Sara and Jason’s room where they also have an ensuite bathroom, another door to a second bedroom, the next to a bedroom-converted-study, and the fourth to a bathroom.

Though Slate’s house has much more blank wall and open carpet space, Sara’s feels just as open. It’s just like her: warm, welcoming, and spunky. Of course there are notes of Jason as well: the very functional organization of the kitchen, the clocks placed strategically as opposed to aesthetically.

Braced against the back of the couch behind Sara, Slate starts to clench and unclench his hand to have something to focus on other than his growing annoyance at Sara’s nervous tapping. Slowly, Sara’s tapping gets louder and more arrhythmic and Slate has to close his eyes and swallow a few...choice remarks.

Sara starts to sneak glances at him from the side of her eyes, but Slate only notices on the third one the little smirk tilting her lips. Snatching his hand away from her shoulders and leaning away with betrayal in his narrowed eyes. “Sara, are you baiting me right now?”

Unable to contain it anymore, Sara stops her tapping and throws her head back with a cackle. It’s an especially beautiful sound considering the date, but still only half as energetic as it would normally be. “It’s been a while since I’ve tested your impenetrable patience,” she says unrepentantly. “And what better time to catch you off guard?”

Slate rolls his eyes and huffs. “I’m more mad at myself that I didn’t catch on sooner than I am at you doing it in the first place.”

Sara shrugs. “Don’t lie, Slate. We both know you’re only as patient as you are now because Asher and I beat it into you.”

Slate sighs and kicks her tapping foot. “Yeah, of course you would take credit for something--”

Coming in hot.

“What? Something what?” Sara sits up suddenly. “Was that Asher? Did you get something from Asher?”

“Yeah,” Slate says distractedly.

What? Asher, what are you talking about?

Um...so long story short--

Asher, Slate interrupts shortly. Just tell me what’s coming and then we can talk about the rest.

Ah...our wolf friend is approaching rather quickly. Slate feels Asher’s sheepish grimace.

Slate goes perfectly still. Our...hang on, you’re bringing her here?

No, well, yes. Dude, I swear it’s not my fault, we didn’t know you’d be there too. She just told us to wait here. She’s probably like thirty seconds away by now.

Now that he’s paying attention, Slate can...can feel her presence near, as weird as that is. Having interacted with her, felt her presence three times including now, he’s still not used to how much magic she exudes. She’s made up of something different than anyone else Slate has ever known. The closest he’s come to this feeling is when he and Asher shared that vision in the clearing the first time they saw her. When they had looked at each other and seen things that had never come to pass. Was it the future? Were they visions of potential threads of the future? Were they just visual illustrations of Asher’s mind, his imagination?

Either way, even that moment with Asher was a fraction of the magic that makes up this wolf--this woman.

“Sara,” Slate says absently to his sister, already rising and heading to the door. “Wait here, I’ll...I’ll be back in a minute.”

“Slate,” Sara quickly grabs his arm just as he puts his hand on the door knob. She stares at him for a moment, her eyes looking into the ghost of her mother’s eyes. Whatever she sees, she’s satisfied. She leaves him with, “Be careful,” and releases him.

As he goes, he says a little prayer to his mother. I don’t know what’s going to happen with us, Mom, but I promise to try my hardest to be what she needs.

:::::

Gray picks up speed, leaving her two companions behind as she begins to see him down a dirt road, standing with his hands in his pockets. Slate, that is. Her True Mate. So far he looks like she remembers: a touch shorter than Asher, dark haired, and hazel-eyed.

She reflects on what she’s seen of him thus far. Him, not the way he looks. He’s a kind man, that has come through clearly enough in their short interactions, and his family trusts him perfectly. The small little inexplicable box of him in the back of her mind feels solid, immovable, steady. She feels...more and more ready as time passes. Like maybe she could put that perception to the test.

His eyes lock on hers, seeing her slow her gait, stop a few feet in front of him. They’d been closer both previous times they had met--once he’d even ever so gently run his fingers along her back--but that was when Gray had fur and four paws. That was her world. This is his world.

Gray notices he doesn’t take his gaze from hers, which is odd. Her eyes and the color of her hair are the only things that should be familiar to him from her wolf form, so she thought he’d take the first chance available to size her up, take in the fullness of the stranger in front of him. To see and judge her like his brother had, but he doesn’t. He just looks carefully into her eyes, probably scanning her facial features, maybe her hair, but his eyes don’t dip below her collar bone.

He stands casually with his legs a little less than shoulder-width apart, hands in the pockets of his jeans. His shirt is plain black and he looks strong underneath it. His face is open, no smile on his lips, but a certain glint in his eye that puts her at ease.

After a moment, his eyebrows raise a little as if to ask, you done yet? and Gray resents his ability to be completely reasonable and yet sarcastic at the same time, so she raises one eyebrow of her own and pointedly looks him up and down, head to toe, one more time before raising her head and bowing it slightly as if to say, yes, yes I am. You have permission to continue now.

His mouth quirks like it wants to smile, but doesn’t quite reach its final evolution. He takes two steps forward to halve the distance between them and takes a hand out of his pocket to offer it to Gray, obviously intending to shake her hand. “I’m Slate,” he says. “I’m sorry if you were startled the other night. Thank you for coming back.”

Gray stares at his hand for a long moment, brow beginning to furrow. She remembers what a handshake is and how to do it. She could probably do it right now with not a painful amount of concentration, but it doesn’t feel right. It feels too much like putting on a human costume and playing the role of a normal woman who wasn’t a wolf for nearly three years straight. So, knowing it’s strange but also somehow knowing he’ll understand, Gray lifts her hand up, palm facing him, and says carefully, “I am Gray.”

Slate takes back his hand and considers her for a moment. He meets her eyes purposefully and dips his head once. He lifts his hand easily and meets hers, palm to palm. It’s not particularly a wolflike gesture, but it’s more animal than human.

“It’s nice to meet you, Gray,” he says. And his mouth does smile then, for a moment.

The touch doesn’t blow either of their minds, it doesn’t fit a missing puzzle piece somewhere in their brains, it’s just a gesture between two people. A small, soft pressure and then an easy release.

When Slate drops his hand, his eyes shift to the left, past Gray, and he nods his head in that direction. “My brothers--Asher and Jason--they brought you here?” And when Gray takes a step back and turns half around, she sees that Asher and Jason stand a distance away, far enough that they look small, but close enough to hear. An unavoidable and frequent truth when living among werewolves with heightened senses.

Gray nods, takes a moment to appraise the house behind him. Where presumably Sara sits and listens as well. It’s small and unassuming.

Slate draws Gray’s attention again. “Can you help Sara?” he asks simply, effortlessly reading her.

Gray nods.

Will you help Sara?” he continues aptly.

Gray nods.

He breathes out, a small huff of amusement. He looks away and takes a hand out of his pocket to rub it across his mouth. Gray waits. He looks back at her, sighs. Appears...not bashful, he’s too impassive for that. Actually, she’s having a hard time reading him at all, a curious thing for her to experience after relying so much on body language for so long. Finally he says, “All of us, the Atwoods, we’re all grateful for whatever you can do. Sara’s inside--she and Jason and Asher will take care of anything you need.” With that, he takes a few steps back, slowly, carefully. He tilts his head to the side, a short gesture of directional intention. “I hope to see you again sometime.”

And then he walks away. Or, that’s what he intends to do. Also what Gray intends to let him do. But suddenly she finds her mouth opening and words flowing easily from it. “You don’t have to go.”

She realizes as she saw him begin to walk away that this was not someone she wanted to let go of. This was someone the moon had put in her path, had chosen for her. Beyond that, this was a man who loved with ferocity. Sometimes the vicious kind of ferocity and sometimes the gentle, quiet kind. She’d seen him fight against the rogue, that first day, and he had let go of the discipline he so obviously has in spades. He still fought smart, but had no concept of ego, he just got the job done, school smarts be darned. Moments later, he had prostrated himself next to Sage and touched him so gently, loved him so calmly, intensely, fiercely.

Gray knows he does not love her, but she knows she has earned his loyalty and from him, and that is absolutely not something to squander. If the moon brought her to him, reserved him as her True Mate, then maybe...she could be someone to him. Maybe notthat, she trails the thought off. But maybe someone.

He turns and faces her again. He cocks a brow. “No?”

Gray nods firmly. “Stay.”

:::::

“I hope to see you again sometime,” Slate says with finality.

He starts to walk away feeling...he doesn’t know how he feels. He’s not too bad at tracking emotion in other people--he doesn’t lack empathy, he has the ability to put himself in others’ shoes--but when it comes to himself...somehow things get lost in translation. Or rather, he puts no effort into translation and sometimes actively fights against it. He has always been more reserved, not generally an emotional guy, but life changed when he first came face to face with mortality at age sixteen. He rarely thinks about that now, but objectively he can say that’s where it started. Especially after his mom died three years later, his own emotions just became...irrelevant.

It was so much more effective to bury his own grief to be able care for his siblings and father than to lay down and cry while his baby brother needed his diaper changed. Whether Raven needed a diaper change, Sage needed a waist to cling to, Forrest needed someone to coax him out of his room, Asher needed a shoulder to cry on, Sara needed someone to rely on, or his dad needed someone to make him eat...there was always something else more important to attend to.

That’s not to say he completely ignored himself. He did things for himself too, if only to keep himself sane. When he could find an hour here or there he would walk. Just walk. He’d walk through rows and rows and rows of apple trees, he’d walk circles in the mini “suburbs” that laid the ground for about 30 pack households that chose to live on Atwood property, he’d walk to his mom’s grave, clear the weeds there, sometimes bring flowers. Other days, when he felt like his body was too small to hold all of himself inside, he would put Raven in a running stroller and run up and down the long, cracked and untended road that led to the city and back to the property. Back and forth, back and forth, fast enough that after only an hour or two he could barely stand, werewolf stamina and all.

But except for that hour or two every day, Slate’s time was someone else’s.

So now, faced with this incredibly emotionally overwhelming situation that has fallen into his lap from one day to the next, he’s completely out of his depth. Somehow he and Gray have an almost tangible connection, like nothing he’s ever felt and exactly like what he’s heard his father describe. More though, than some transcendental bond, he just sees someone in pain. He’s so acquainted with seeing that emotion painted on the people he loves that he could recognize it from a mile away. If he can be the person to help her find healing, wonderful. What’s more likely, based on her reactions, is that it will be his brother and sister and Jason who will be the most helpful. Slate has no problem removing himself as an obstacle; he has neither need nor desire to be anyone’s savior. He just wants them to heal.

So yes, he meant it when he said he hopes to see her again. He does. He wants to explore the magical connection between him and Gray, he wants to know the story behind her eyes. It would be such a shame, he thinks, if their connection goes to waste, but it’s not up to him. He’s not the one in pain, in need of help.

So his feelings are irrelevant.

“You don’t have to go.”

It catches him off guard, so he takes about another step and a half before he processes the information. He turns back to look at Gray and she seems startled by her own words. He gives her a moment to take it back, and when she says nothing more, he cocks a brow. “No?”

Without hesitation, she nods. “Stay.”

He hums and lets more confusing emotions wash over him and fade away before shrugging once then saying with a dip of his head, “Then I will stay.” Then he gestures with his head at Asher and Jason and asks Gray, “Ready for company?”

Gray lets a wry smile grow on her face and nods.

Slate wastes no more time and tosses a thought through the bond to Asher and Jason both at once. Let’s get this show on the road.

:::::

Sara’s intense anxiety from earlier has abated since Slate heard from Asher that he and her husband were back to home soil and unharmed, and so she actually has energy to express her personality mostly free of crushing anxiety--and she is dying to finally be clued in. “This is getting ridiculous,” she mutters to herself.

Knowing they’re on Atwood soil, Sara no longer has qualms about tapping into her bond with Jason, and she can feel him near. Not right-outside-the-door near, but maybe within a mile. If he clapped his hands loudly, she could probably hear him. Jason, she begins, where have you been?

She receives from him with some amount of relief in his tone, Sara, I didn’t realize how much I needed to hear your voice. Sara smiles. He continues, I’ve been out in the forest with Asher. We were out doing, uh, reconnaissance of a sort?

Okay so...apparently the situation is more complicated than she thought if Jason is having trouble articulating his side of the story. Reconnaissance of what?

Sara, we...we found the wolf. Gray.

It takes Sara’s tired mind several moments to comprehend what she’s hearing. The wolf? The wolf with the gray eyes--you found her? By the end, her inner voice becomes high and thready with desperation, excitement, energy, anxiety, all of the above.

Yes, and she calls herself Gray. We’re bringing her home, she’s coming to help you. Jason sounds...guardedly giddy. Like he’s just barely holding himself back from joy and excitement for fear that it will be ripped away at any moment.

When the words register, Sara stands up and starts pacing, wanting to burst through the front door and sprint down the drive to meet them halfway, but simultaneously she realizes...Slate. Slate who just ran outside like the boogie monster was right on his tail. Slate who is Gray’s True Mate. Holy crap, she thinks to herself.

To Jason, she communicates as she paces, J, Slate’s here. What...what are the two of them doing? As she’s communicating, she realizes, Jason, are they outside together right now? Like...right outside our door?!

Jason probably sends her something back, but Sara doesn’t hear it past the blood rushing in her ears. She rushes to the door and presses her ear to it, hoping they haven’t gone too far that she can’t hear them, hard enough as that is with their hearing.

And hear them she does.

“...help Sara?” Sara tunes in in the middle of Slate’s sentence. They’re literally right there. Sara’s stupid enough to have been so wrapped up in her own head with the bond communication that she wasn’t aware of what was going on merely feet from her own front door.

Sara doesn’t hear anything back, but she’s definitely there--the wolf. She can smell Slate, can hear his breathing only because she recognizes its infuriatingly even pacing. It makes sense though, the silence does. Sara doesn’t know what she was even expecting from Gray. A whuff? A bark? Sara scoffs to herself. Gray had barely made a sound either of the times Sara saw her, aside from the howling. It’s enough to know she’s there. Here.

“All of us, the Atwoods, we are all grateful for whatever you can do. Sara’s inside--she and Jason and Asher will take care of anything you need,” Slate says after a long pause. Sara frowns, realizing Slate is removing himself from the situation. She sees the sense in it, given what happened just four days ago, but her heart aches for her brother. She hopes he gets a chance to get to know Gray before...before what? Before she leaves, Sara guesses. She winces and rubs her chest over her heart as though she can feel Slate’s heartache already.

She can hear Slate take a few steps on her grass lawn as he says, “I hope to see you again.”

Sara sighs. Her brother hasn’t had the easiest go of it ever since his mid teens and to Sara’s ears, it just sounds like he’s already resigned to another defeat. Well, not defeat. Sara has a hard time picturing Slate actually defeated. Slate doesn’t lie down easy and rarely falls short of anything he really tries for. So Sara supposes he doesn’t sound defeated, he just sounds resigned. Like his fate has been determined and that’s that, so why cry about it?

Que sera sera. C’est la vie. Some other foreign platitude.

“You don’t have to go.”

The words actually startle Sara enough that she jumps a little. That...is a voice she’s never heard before. Feminine. A little rough. Strong.

Is this...is this Gray? Then it hits her and Sara thumps the heel of her hand to her forehead, because duh. How would they know her name if she didn’t tell them? She’s...she’s human. For them. For Sara. It has to be.

“No?” Slate asks. Sara snorts to herself. No one but Slate could be so cool and collected in this situation and not be putting on a front.

“Stay,” Gray says in that same tone of voice. Strong. Firm.

Sara listens as they exchange a few more words and then all the sudden she hears footsteps coming closer. Sara scrambles away from the door and very nearly avoids banging her elbow on the side table by the couch in her haste to get settled and not appear like she’s been deliberately eavesdropping. Which is silly in and of itself because she definitely didn’t need to be sitting by the door to hear the whole conversation as clear as if they’d been in her living room with her.

The quick movements bring to the forefront a slow moving stress headache, so she winces and breathes through it as she sinks into the cushions deeper. Outside, she hears Asher and Jason running the last several yards home, apparently to meet up with Slate and Gray before entering all together. Sara is secretly glad for the extra few moments alone. The reality of the situation still hasn’t really hit her.

Heck, just this morning, she was barely getting out of bed.

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