Before the Fall

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Chapter 15

It’s a Saturday and Slate has Raven on his shoulders, helping him pick the good apples for the private grocer they sell to, and put the lightly bruised or abnormally shaped ones in a separate bin for the reduced price sales they bring to the local farmer’s market. Sage trails behind them, reaching up for the low hanging fruit and collecting the apples that have dropped to the ground for applesauce or granola bars, or to put to use in a few other pastry recipes they keep on standby.

The three of them are the only ones in the orchard today. They have plenty of staff that helps them comb the orchards during the harvest months, but no one comes on the weekends when they don’t have to. Slate spends a few hours here most every day for a few reasons. One, his father owns the orchards and Slate has been tending to the “farm” since he was old enough to toddle behind his mother and sister and pick up the fallen apples, it’s in his blood.

Two, because he and Sara had begun to split a lot of the workload of the apple tree business while his father was unable to do it himself, after the passing of his wife. Slate always handled the hands-on business: managing tools, scheduling employees depending on necessity for the season, arranging bagging and boxing, and everything to do with year-round upkeep. Sara took over all the business angles, much of which went over Slate’s head, but Slate knew Sara actually found the work to be somewhat cathartic. The trees were all planted when their father was a child so that he could inherit it when he was old enough, and then it was something he and their mom handled together. Sara found catharsis in putting her metaphorical feet where their mother once stood, going through daily steps that she once did. It helped her feel close to Mom, and feel helpful. That’s big for Sara: to feel needed.

Alpha Atwood’s re-entry into the business was stilted and awkward, like trying to figure out how to carry a bulky object. The alpha was...never really the same since Mom died, so he wasn’t really equipped to handle the majority of business operations anymore, and that was before he became alpha. He was just Dad. When he did pick up the mantle of Alpha, they found that to be the role where Dad was able to flourish. All he wanted was for his loved ones to be secure and happy, a job which he took incredibly seriously since his wife died. So Dad dabbles in the business, usually picking up little things that Sara and Slate hate, but much of his energy goes into caring for the pack. Sara and Slate, by then, were so used to working alongside their father as an equal that it was natural for them to help here and there with pack business as well.

The third reason Slate chooses to spend time in the orchards is because it’s something he can pass on to his siblings. Raven, of course, never got to see their mom in her yellow sundress, picking apples and winking back at him when she took a big bite out of the best ones with juices dribbling down her chin. And that’s just...well, Slate tries not to think about it too much. So he takes Raven out most every weekend to spend about an hour amongst the trees, even when it’s not harvesting season. Slate has been taking Raven all through the orchards ever since he was a baby, so it’s in Raven’s blood as well.

Even Sage was still young, only seven years old, when their mother died and by then, she already had four other children to care for, so she didn’t have as much time to take Sage out to the trees. Slate and Sara went to public elementary school, but quickly decided they wanted to be homeschooled like their other werewolf friends so they didn’t have to hide or struggle as they were growing into their shift, and of course the younger siblings followed their elders. A few mothers and fathers in the pack came together to rally the children altogether, but still, Slate’s mom had to oversee the education of all the five children she raised, which took up a lot of her time. Slate knows that Sage, much like their father, holds family extremely close. Slate knows he takes it like a blow every time a family member leaves the house. So he takes Sage to one of his favorite places in the world to make private memories with him too.

Forrest was fourteen when Mom died and did get to go out with the family to the trees not infrequently, but none of the three younger siblings really seemed to have the trees in their blood like the older three do. And then after she died, Forrest started actively avoiding anything to do with the apple trees. His coping method has always been isolation, whether it’s because he’s being teased about his glasses or dealing with their mother’s death, but Slate noticed that he especially skirted around the topic and the physical location of the orchards. Sara always tried to get Forrest out of the house at least once a day to do an errand or go on a walk in the early years, just something, immediately following their mother’s passing. But one day, Slate decided he was going to get Forrest down to the orchards one way or another.

It took a little brute force and a lot of patience and coaxing, but eventually Slate had Forrest pushing Raven’s stroller along the dirt paths while Slate pruned branches. They were quiet for a long time, but that never bothered Slate--the goal was only to get Forrest there. Of course the hope was that he’d find the courage to face the memories of his mom he was trying to bury and start healing by letting the grief come to light, but Slate stuck to small goals as a general rule.

About half an hour in, Slate smelled salt and started to hear Forrest’s breath hitching and sniffling. Slate let him cry quietly for a long while until Forrest tapped Slate on the shoulder and fell apart in his arms the second Slate turned. Slate let him fall into as many pieces as he needed, and when he was done, they kept walking until Slate was satisfied with the dent he’d put into the workload and they walked back home. They didn’t speak a word until they got back to the house and Slate went to change Raven’s diaper and Forrest split off to go upstairs back to his dungeon room. Slate’s next goal was convincing him to turn one door to the left of his room for a bit.

Hey,” Slate had said before letting him go. Forrest turned and looked at him with red rimmed eyes. “I love you, Forrest.” Forrest nodded and hiccuped in response. Slate pulled him into his chest one more time and squeezed. “Asher’s upstairs in his room,” he’d murmured into Forrest’s hair. “He has all the time in the world for you.” And he had accepted Slate’s kiss on the forehead and slowly padded up the hardwood staircase.

Slate listened as he knocked on Asher’s door, the one right to the left of his own, and the older one of the two immediately dropped what he was doing and put his arms around his younger brother. When Slate heard whispering begin, he knew his part of the job was over and that Asher would find the words that often seemed to escape Slate. He sent a quick bond message to Asher. No words, just a feeling of acknowledgement and gratitude. Even though Slate knew it was mentally exhausting for him, Asher was just always better with the emotional stuff. Sara and Slate often felt like they couldn’t let the kids see them too upset because they had to be the pillars, but Asher was perfect because he could teach the kids that it was okay to fall apart sometimes. Sometimes Slate feels like he and Asher are two parts of a whole--they’re Irish twins, as their mother liked to call them. Born in the same year only eleven months apart, alike in many ways, and different in all the important ones. Asher had a different kind of power about him, a different kind of strength, than Slate had. Slate often wishes that he could be as gentle and kind as his brother. Asher was the kind of person you were just grateful to have in your life.

So every weekend, Slate takes Sage and Raven out to the apple trees, and every so often, Forrest joins them. When Forrest comes, he never talks, but Slate sees him listening, and he always looks lighter after.

Asher works in the orchards routinely as well, but when he goes, he’s doing a job. Putting in his hours. Not because he’s running from memories, but because he doesn’t find their mother in the trees like Slate does; and Asher has told Slate before that Saturdays in the orchards are Slate’s time with their younger siblings. Their “bonding time”, in Asher’s words.

As for Sara, she likes to dance down the paths with loud music on, which...is not Slate’s style. To each their own.

And their father…well, Slate’s father doesn’t often talk about his own grief, so it’s hard to know, but Slate thinks the wound is still too raw--even six years later--for the alpha to feel like he can enjoy something they so used to love when she’s not there to enjoy it with him.

For each of the Atwoods, the apple orchards are a character in their lives, small or large.

“Hey Slater?”

Now Slate turns around, making Raven swing around precariously on his shoulders, and the boy squawks and claps his hands quickly on Slate’s forehead for balance. “Sage?”

“Um, can I...will you come spar with me after we’re done?”

Slate would tilt his head curiously if Raven didn’t still have a death grip on it. Sage is not usually so hesitant...Slate thinks this reeks of teenage love on the brain, but he decides to let it play out. “Of course.”

When Sage doesn’t say anything more, Slate turns and continues on, knowing it will only take a few minutes more for his little brother to get up the courage to ask the question he really wants to ask.

“Okay, thanks. Uh, can we...can we ask Aria and Zander if they want to come too?”

Slate’s lips twitch in an aborted smile. Raven beats him to the punch, though. Giggling, he sings, “Sage thinks Aria is prettyyyy.”

Sage’s cheeks go rosy and Slate can see him wanting to deny it, but can’t bring himself to claim anything other than Aria’s grace and glory. He sniffs and mutters as he reaches up for a ripe apple, “Yeah, whatever.”

Slate huffs a laugh and turns to let Sage see him smile genuinely. He holds out the sack full of apples for Sage to deposit the ones in his hands into. That done, he dumps the heavy bag back into Sage’s unsuspecting arms. Sage oofs! and complains, “What was that for?”

Slate smirks with half his mouth and winks conspiratorially. “My hands are about to be full.”

Raven kicks his legs into Slate’s chest as he innocently begins, “With wha--ah! Slaaaate! Hahahaha!

Slate has, in one movement, swung Raven off his shoulders and flipped him over so he’s hanging off of one of Slate’s shoulders in a fireman hold, tickling him as ruthlessly as only older brothers can do. Sage snickers at Raven’s loud, laughing shrieks. There are few people who get to see this side of Slate. Six, in fact: his siblings and father.

Slate stops tickling Raven, who gulps in heavy breaths in recovery. Slate lifts an eyebrow at Sage. “I wouldn’t be laughing so much if I were you,” he says ominously.

Sage stops and narrows his eyes. Sensing danger--rather appropriately--he backs away a few steps and holds the sack of apples closer to his chest. “Why not?”

Slate grins with his teeth. “It turns out my hands aren’t full after all. I’ve got one shoulder left for a little teenage punk!”

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