Before the Fall

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Chapter 14

Gray continues to roam her eyes over Slate as he watches Asher and Jason rushing towards them. Gray knows he knows she’s looking, but he lets her anyway. He appears as calm and unruffled as ever. His arms are now crossed over his chest and it makes his forearms seem more prominently muscled. He doesn’t have bulging biceps the way men do when they spend hours a day in the gym and inhale protein by the gallon for that sole purpose.

That’s not to say he’s skinny by any means, because he’s far from it. He’s broad and strong, with rounded shoulders and biceps, but toned. Like he does manual labor and any bulk is only for function and capability, not for narcissistic purposes. His whole bearing appears similar. His dark hair is cut close on the sides and only a little longer on top, styled simply. His clothes--black T-shirt, jeans, and work boots--are casual, unassuming, and plain.

One thing Gray still hasn’t quite gotten over, however, is his eyes. Gray could almost say they’re nearly as startling as hers. They’re not inhuman like hers are, but they are unarguably unique. Gray can’t decide if they’re blue or green. She wonders if he has central heterochromia. They would undoubtedly be much less alluring on someone without his tone of skin and color of hair, though. With hair so dark it’s almost black and tan skin, his light blue-green eyes are striking.

She shakes her head of girlish musings and turns to watch Asher and Jason shorten the distance between them until they’ve met again

Breathing a little heavy from the run, Asher grins at Gray. “Ready to get down to business?”

Behind them, Slate has already opened the door and props it open with one hand for the rest of them to file in. And this...this is it. Now is her time to fulfill the duty the moon had brought her for. In the beginning of her discovery of her moon gift, Gray was always worried she would somehow fail, that her body would fail to be a conduit for her moon gift by some fault of her own. She was terrified to get vulnerable people’s hopes up, only to crush them with her inability to be their all powerful hero. Or at least, that’s what it feels like everyone expects of her. Now she has a good enough relationship with her maker to understand that, when used for the right reasons, her gifts are infallible within their bounds.

If she has no control over any other part of any given circumstance, she has a power that no one can take away from her. Gray is strong, she is brave, she is powerful.

It’s time.

Gray takes a few steps into the room, Sara and Jason’s home, the first four walls she’s been trapped in in a long time. That’s all it takes for Sara to practically leap off the earth tone suede cloth couch and collapse into Gray’s arms. For a moment, Gray tenses and readies herself to fight off the predator, but stops herself before her arms can lift above her waistline. She can’t quite make herself return Sara’s embrace, but the muscle memory in her fingers carries them to Sara’s upper arms, just below the hem of her T-shirt. The pads of her fingers touch skin with feather light pressure and she slowly feels an ache grow at her temples, her joints stiffen, and nausea creep into her stomach.

She learned long ago to take it slow. One time she accompanied her father to work to run the front desk for a few hours and rubbed a hand up and down a sick child’s arm in the guise of touch-comfort as she walked him and his dad down to a room with the covert intention of absorbing his pain. As it turned out, the boy had the stomach flu, and she had all but sucked every morsel of discomfort from his body all at once. Needless to say, the boy and his father were quickly abandoned in favor of a few unsavory moments alone with the porcelain throne. Another benefit of the slow and steady approach that she has found over the years is that her body can heal the injury better if she absorbs the ailment gradually.

The last benefit of course, is that the patient is less likely to question the change if it happens gradually.

In Gray’s arms, Sara relaxes, almost slumps, now that her body doesn’t have to spare energy for sending stress and pain signals to her brain. Gray’s body will only retain the pain for another few minutes before her healing absolves it all and everyone wins.

Sara pulls back but leaves her hands on Gray’s shoulders. “Thank you,” she breathes, not even knowing what Gray has just done for her. “Thank you. Come sit.”

Sara takes Gray by the hand and leads her, just shy of forcefully, to the couch between herself and Asher, Jason having perched on the arm of the couch by his wife and Slate leaning against the opposite wall.

All in all, she’s feeling very claustrophobic. Eyes darting around, trying to keep everyone and all exits in view, Gray answers stiffly, “You’re welcome.” She clears her throat and tries to relax and let the words flow. “I can help you, but I will need to stay. Until…” Breathe Gray, breathe, “Until the baby is here.” There. Every word gets easier. She exhales with relief.

Sara and Jason share a look, him hopeful and her excited. “Okay, what do we need to do?” Sara asks.

She goes to take Gray’s hand again, but everything has become approximately seven-hundred and seventy-two miles too far out of Gray’s comfort zone. She tries to gently remove her arm without offending Sara, but the poor woman deflates anyway.

Asher seems to catch on and stands, giving Gray the opportunity to shift her weight into the space he vacated and gain a little more air between herself and everyone else. He rubs his hands together. “Hey Sara, how about we take things slow? How about we tell Gray a little about ourselves while we settle in?”

Sara appears to absolutely not want to take things slow, but Gray thinks some communication happens between all three of the siblings as their eyes flit from one to another before Sara takes a deep breath and relaxes back into her cushion of the couch, instead of Gray’s. “Yes, well. I suppose we can. I’m Sara Kelley, née Atwood. This is my mate and husband, Jason,” she pats the man in question on the leg and shoots him a tired smile. “We met, what, seven years ago now, babe?”

Jason nods and preens a little. “Met seven years ago, locked that down a year later.”

Sara rolls her eyes, but the banter and affection from her husband seem to put her fully at ease. This is information Gray doesn’t really need, but she recognizes that the purpose of Asher’s suggestion wasn’t necessarily so that Gray could learn the Kelley family’s history, it was to take some heat off of her. She will admit though, there are things she’s curious about.

“This was the first place we’ve ever moved to together. Been able to call it home for four years now, but it might as well be a second home base for all the Atwoods. All the kids and my dad are over here all the time,” Sara adds with a self-satisfied grin.

“Is it really a ‘home base’ if you’re always making me work for you when I’m here?” Slate slips in with one side of his mouth quirked up and a raised brow from where he’s leaning against the wall with his hands back in his pockets.

Shhh,” Sara leans forward with a finger to her lips. “You’re making me look bad in front of our guest, Slate!”

“Slate is pretty stellar in the kitchen,” Asher pipes up with a grin and an unrepentant shrug. “It’s not a bad idea. Just wish I’d have thought of it first.”

Sara laughs and reaches out a fist for Asher to bump. Jason sighs and pats his wife’s shoulder in a gesture of fond resignation. He shoots Gray a commiserating look. “I keep trying to tell them they’re being too codependent, but I always get--” Sara whacks him in the face with a pillow. He splutters out the rest of his aborted sentence, “That.

Sara rolls her eyes and reaches up to pat his cheek where the pillow hit him. “It’s called classical conditioning, babe. I thought you would have learned by now.”

Gray can actually feel her lips forming a smile at the family’s antics. It just...feels nice to be around them. They make her feel like she could be normal again. She’s not ready to jump in with her own banter yet, but the familiarity of the ambiance is making her start to remember who she was before...well, before. Years ago, she might have found herself making jabs at Jason as well. She might tease Slate for being the classic “tall, dark, and broody werewolf,” and Asher might make a crack about how Slate is the shorter of the two. Sara would probably gang up on Slate with them.

It’s not happening today or tomorrow, but now she can actually imagine it happening as a potential future, not just a fantasy where an actor plays her part.

“But,” Sara brings her back to the present. “I guess that’s...that’s not really why you’re here, is it?” She asks rhetorically.

Gray clocks Slate shifting at the edges of her peripheral vision. He and Asher share a glance, and Gray assumes some bond communication happens because they both nod as though having come to some conclusion. Slate reaches out and puts a comforting hand on the back of Asher’s neck and clears his throat to gather attention. Asher is the one who speaks. “Hey, so Slater and I are gonna stick around, but we’re gonna to let you all have some space.” He gestures to the hallway with a jerk of his thumb. “We’ll be in the spare bedroom.”

Slate eyes the three on the couch and faces them in equal measure--Gray realizes it’s for her benefit. He’s addressing her without addressing her. She appreciates it. “We’ll be right down the hall.”

Gray lifts her head and waits a moment for Slate’s eyes to track hers. She nods and softens her eyes in thanks. He seems to read her just right and offers a return communication in the softening of his mouth and smoothing of his brow. Not quite a smile, but more than neutral.

Sara stands and catches both of her brothers in a huge hug before they leave the room, one arm around each of them. No doubt knowing everyone will hear, she whispers anyway, “Love you both. Thank you.”

She leaves them each with a kiss to the temple before sitting again, and Jason shifts from the arm of the couch to sit next to his wife, still leaving ample space for Gray. Sara turns more fully toward Gray and bends one knee to lay sideways on the couch. She seems unsure of where to start. “Thanks again, Gray, we…”

Gray tilts her head to the side and with her audience now cut in half, opens her posture, instead of having her arms crossed defensively and her ankles interlocked. Sara seems to need something more, so Gray reaches out and puts a hand on her knee for a short second and hums in subtle encouragement. “Hm?”

Sara looks at Gray and any tentative smile is gone. Jason settles an arm in a comforting weight across her shoulders and leans down to press a lingering kiss to her hair. Sara looks up at him and squeezes his hand before returning her gaze to Gray. Whatever was blocking her words seems to have released. “Well, I don’t know how much you’ve...you’ve figured out, but if you are a healer, then...I could use your help, whatever you’re willing to give.” She swallows hard. “Jason and I have been trying to have children for four years. I’ve been pregnant several times, but it never--sticks. It just never sticks.”

Gray can definitely read between the lines there. Her heart hurts for Sara. She doesn’t deserve this--but then, who ever deserves to be in pain? Maybe some would argue that there are people who have warranted their own suffering, but Gray believes it’s never her job to judge who deserves what and when, so she heals indiscriminately. So far, it’s never killed her.

“I’m sorry,” Gray says sincerely to Sara. Gray thinks she should be better at being comforting considering the kind of people she surrounds herself with, but those kinds of words never come easy. She generally tries to speak through action instead. “I can help. But I cannot--promise...a miracle.”

Sara nods her head several times, rushes to say, “How you do whatever you do is already a miracle, but I understand. You don’t owe me anything, I understand.”

Gray rolls her lips in. That’s not exactly what she meant, but she can’t find better words. Gray has several theories on what could be going on with Sara, but she needs more details. She feels a bit like her father, probing his patients for details and past history...it doesn’t leave her with happy feelings. “Do you know...or, or have an idea...of what’s going on?” She stumbles out.

Sara and Jason exchange a glance, and Jason answers quietly, “We don’t know. We’ve got a licensed physician’s assistant in the pack who we’ve gone to see a couple times, but she can’t give us any answers. There’s not a lot of...resources for werewolves with illnesses, so…”

“My mom had difficult pregnancies,” Sara provides, having gathered herself. “She had progressively difficult pregnancies, which...is saying a lot because there are six of us. She was incredibly strong.”

Gray hears what Sara’s not saying. Why am I not as strong as her?

Gray shakes her head a little and catches her eye. “You are not your mother.”

The statement could be taken a number of ways, not a few of them offensive, but Sara seems to get what she’s saying. You cannot weigh your pain against someone else’s scale. You cannot measure inner strength. You are not less than her.

Sara blinks and her mouth tightens, but Gray doesn’t think it’s out of anger or offense. She continues her assessment, “Your mother--is she a werewolf?”

“She was human.”

Gray doesn’t miss the past tense, and a big part of the picture gets filled in at the same time as another dozen question marks appear, but that’s not relevant. “Okay,” she says instead. “Do you know why? The difficult pregnancies, I mean.”

Sara’s mouth purses to the side. “Not really. I know her mom had some difficulties as well, so genetics for sure, but we’ve always thought part of it might also be that she carried mostly werewolf children.”

“She comes from--from human family?”

“My mom?” Sara confirms. “Yeah, she didn’t know about werewolves until she met my dad.”

At that, she gets a sad little smile on her face, like she’s remembering something fondly. Gray hums and thinks for a moment.

“Well,” she drags out slowly. She decides to go with the straightforward truth. The Atwoods seem like straight shooters, and are made of tough stuff. Bluntly, “I don’t know what’s going on and you will likely never get answers.”

:::::

“Well, I don’t know what’s going on and you will likely never get answers,” Gray tells them bluntly. It feels like a dagger to Sara’s heart, because of course. Of course, she’s got some freak of nature dysfunctional werewolf body. She’s just made wrong.

Then suddenly Gray grabs her shoulder and shakes her once gently before releasing her. Her eyebrows are raised and her grayscale eyes appear unimpressed, like she expected better from Sara. “But,” she says pointedly. “I have ideas. And, I might not know exactly what’s wrong, but I can still help.”

Just as quick as her heart felt crushed, it fills with hope and gratitude once more. With this strong woman in front of her, she almost feels silly for losing faith so quickly. As she looks into Gray’s eyes and feels a grin grow on her face, she’s reminded of that first night. She remembers looking that wolf straight in the face and seeing a sister in those eyes. At the time, she interpreted that as a similarity between the two of them, that they were both older sisters to their siblings--protectors. Now, she sees it as kinship. Yes, Sara thinks, feeling some of her good humor grow with the grin, this woman and I would have been a formidable set of sisters in another life.

“Thank you Gray,” She says. She wants to wrap her up in another bear hug, but forces herself to reel it in and instead squeezes Jason’s hand until his bones creak. She winks, but her smile is still tentative when she asks, “Whatcha got for me, doc?”

Gray raises an entertained eyebrow, but then seems to struggle as she says “I think you…when you were born...” She huffs. Frowning, she seems to say out of left field, “Your brother wears glasses.”

Taken aback, Sara slides her gaze to Jason. He looks about as dumbfounded as Sara feels. When no one says anything, Gray looks between them with an expectant face. “No?”

“No yeah, yes he does. Forrest. Why?” Sara gets out.

“Has anyone told you why?”

Sara hums, not catching her angle. “Not that we know of. It was always a bizarre anomaly. Why?”

Gray leans in a little, as though things have just now gotten interesting for her. Sara feels like she’s already run mental marathons around them. “Most likely, it comes from a birth defect.”

Sara frowns. “Werewolves don’t have birth defects.”

Gray tilts her head from side to side for a moment. “Agree and disagree. What do you know about werewolf pregnancy?”

Sara feels Jason shift beside her. This is right up his alley. Sara knows he’s eating this up. “Assume we know nothing,” he reasons. In the interim, Sara absently notices that Gray’s speech is nearly unimpeded, now that she’s fully engaged and the one holding all the cards.

Gray sighs a little, but nods. “It is strongly speculated that werewolf fetuses form the same as humans for the first six months of pregnancy. Most likely, Forrest’s optic nerves didn’t form correctly and when his development split off, the werewolf gene tried to heal the error.” She shrugs then. “Usually, the healing factor is fully successful. Maybe a human mother impeded healing, maybe her already poor health, maybe any number of possibilities. Forrest is just unlucky.”

Jason hums thoughtfully. “Or lucky. He could have been blind, but he sees just fine with glasses now.”

Gray cocks her head at him consideringly and nods in concession. Point, she seems to say.

“So you’re saying, I, what, have a developmental disorder that wasn’t fully healed?” Sara tries to connect the dots.

“Maybe. Maybe not. You’ve been getting headaches, nausea, back pain recently?”

Sara stares at Gray for a moment because she definitely never told her that, but she lets the discrepancy go and just nods. “Yes.”

“It’s possible you have a latent disorder or illness that your body heals enough to be a nonfactor when everything else functions normally.”

“But when I’m pregnant…?”

“Well,” Gray starts, “I must start out that I can’t heal genetic disorders and...I can’t be sure. But I think your body routinely heals your disorder or--or whatever it is--but when you become pregnant, the body is trying to heal the new injury--which I would guess, is severely negative pregnancy symptoms like the ones your mother experienced--and it can’t simultaneously heal the severe symptoms and the disorder that’s causing the lost pregnancies Actually,” she adds, “I’d bet your healing factor is slightly slower than average in general for the same reasons--depending on whether or not the disorder interferes.”

Sara digests this for a moment, but Jason barrels on. “So if the pregnancy symptoms become a nonfactor, Sara’s body can heal the latent disorder and she can carry a baby to term?”

As he speaks, Sara can feel her face going from somber to giddy as Gray’s face softens and her eyes smile. She knows if she was Gray, she’d be irritated at these people looking at her expecting her to fulfill all their dreams but she just--she can’t help it! Having children is her dream. Gray may claim not to be a miracle worker, but the two things Sara would wish for if she had a genie would be to have her mom back and to have her baby girl. Sara can never have her mom back, she knows that. But she was beginning to think she just wasn’t meant to be a mother too and now…it’s like the world is new again.

“Yes.”

Funny what hope can do for you.

:::::

From this morning to now has been a years’ worth of emotional overhaul, and Gray knows she’s going to have to check out soon, but right now, she’ll enjoy being able to give Sara and her family a priceless gift.

Sara looks fit to burst, and obviously can’t help herself when she grabs one of Gray’s hands to crush. Her other is crushing Jason’s hand, but then again, Jason is holding her hand back with both of his, so there’s probably a lot of pounds of force being exercised over there all in all. “So when...when can we start?” Sara breathes.

At that, Gray actually laughs for the first time in forever. It’s freeing and happy and light. She wants to do it again. “We’ve already started.”

Sara puts both feet on the floor like she’s ready to leap off the couch, but grounds herself again at the last moment. She starts out looking at Gray, but her gaze shifts down at herself and then to her husband as the sentence continues, “Are you saying I’m already…”

Gray fully grins and nods, and that’s all it takes for the house to be full of laughter, the occasional excited shriek, jumping up and down, and generally a lot of celebrating. After jumping around with Jason, who Gray has to say looks a little funny with his clumsy, gangly body flailing around even though Sara’s doing the same--after all that, Sara pulls, nigh unto yanks, Gray off the couch and into a hug. For once, Gray lets herself be hugged, even returns it, albeit weakly. Sara’s definitely crushing her lungs, but lets her use a hand to yank Jason into the embrace as well anyway.

While Gray is otherwise obstructed, it seems that Asher and Slate could no longer contain themselves in the bedroom, because Asher’s voice comes booming from somewhere to the left of their group hug, “Sara’s having a baby!

This causes Sara to release Gray and erupt into another bout of shrieks while she goes to hug the guts out of him. Slate enters the room just behind his brother with a whole lot less to-do, but he has the biggest smile on his face Gray has seen from him. He’s...he’s beaming. When Sara releases Asher, Slate takes his spot and twirls Sara in a circle while she laughs until she cries.

Now with tears crawling down her face, Sara face plants into Jason’s chest to happy cry. Slate squeezes Sara’s shoulder once, hard, before kissing her on the crown of her head and making his way past them to stand by Gray. He moves until they’re side by side, a few inches of space between their shoulders. Not quite beaming like sunshine at noonday but still smiling, he says out of the corner of his mouth, “Thank you, Gray.”

She turns her head to look at him for a moment before returning her gaze to the happy scene in front of her. She realizes that somewhere along the lines, words were coming so much easier, which is part of what makes her feel lighter. She’s able to give up some control and let herself actually relax. These people aren’t going to think she’s stupid if she stumbles here and there, or if she stutters over a word. They want her here, flaws and all. Might be only because of what she can do for them, but it’s nice to be needed nonetheless. So she goes for honesty with Slate, her True Mate. “It’s what makes me happy.”

As Slate shifts his weight, his shoulder bumps into Gray’s and she’s not sure if it’s intentional or not. “You’ve had this ability for a long time?”

Gray nods, a small smile still on her face. “Yes. I...have never had much else to offer, but I can do this. So I do it, and it makes me happy.”

This time Slate definitely intentionally kisses his shoulder to hers and leaves it there for a moment before moving away again. It gets her attention and she finds him waiting to meet her gaze. He says quietly, “You have more value than what your body can do.” He pauses and faces forward again, toward the celebrating couple and Asher. “But I’m glad you’re happy.”

Gray looks at him for another long moment, and that’s a weird thing she’s noticed...he lets her look. He lets her stare and think and calculate and contemplate without impatience. Gray knows her eyes are...unsettling. She knows that what she’s made of herself--that is, a mysterious wolf who emerges from the forest to do “magic healing”--is meant to be seen only in small doses, otherwise it becomes...creepy. But Slate just stands there so confidently. He stands tall, like he has nothing to hide and he doesn’t care if she likes what she sees or not. He doesn’t need her approval, he doesn’t need her help, he doesn’t need judgement from her, he just doesn’t need her.

It feels like freedom.

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