Before the Fall

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Chapter 16

Zandeeeeer!”

“Gosh dang it, Aria, this house only has two bedrooms and we have werewolf hearing! You don’t need to scream!”

Aria swings open her brother’s bedroom door at noon and peeks her smugly smiling face in the doorway. She flounces in and hops onto the bed, causing both herself and Zander to bounce on impact. Sweetly, she says, “Zander, you can’t blame me for what society teaches me. Teenage girls are supposed to be loud and scream-y and obnoxious.”

Zander groans and flops back on the bed, throwing an arm over his eyes. “Society also teaches you that werewolves are only good for making subplot as part of a love triangle in romance novels, but that’s not true is it?”

Zander can’t see her, but he feels the bed bounce as Aria gestures. Sounding miffed, she retorts, “The losing part.”

Zander removes his arm to frown at his sister. “The losing part of what?”

“Of the love triangle.” Somehow she produces a tinfoil wrapped chocolate candy from somewhere in the nearly nonexistent pockets of her extremely tight leggings and pops it into her mouth.

Zander huffs and gets out of bed to grab some clothes and walk to the bathroom, coming to terms with the fact that his lazy day in bed is about to relocate and become a lot more active than planned. He calls over his shoulder, “Is this you coming to terms with the fact that Taylor Lautner is like fifteen years older than you and that maybe he’s the losing component to that love triangle for a reason?” As an afterthought right before he closes the bathroom door, “And stop eating chocolate on my bed! Where did you even get that? We don’t have any chocolate in the house.”

Aria snorts. “First of all, love transcends all space and time, okay? Get with it. Secondly,” she pauses, as if unsure how to play it. She goes with, “That’s what you think.”

Zander rolls his eyes as he puts on a new T-shirt and loose gym shorts, because even though he’s not getting his lazy day in bed, he at least deserves to be comfortable. “Alright,” he concedes. “Technically that is right, since I did think there was no chocolate in the house. But there better not be anymore chocolate in the house, Ari. Candy was not a part of our approved budget list for the week!”

Aria is now making noise somewhere in the kitchen, probably scrounging around for something unhealthy and packaged because apparently, Zander is the only person in the house who knows how to put ingredients together and use a frying pan. “Zander, I’m a woman now, I need chocolate every now and then. You know, to cope.”

Zander finishes up in the bathroom and tries to fight off his initial reaction to cringe and change the subject because he’s a mature adult male who is also the legal guardian of a teenage girl, he needs to be able to handle these discussions. It’s times like these that he can’t help but remember that there’s someone out there who would have done so much better with Aria than he has. Of all the people that left them, it burns that there’s someone still out there, who chooses to leave them alone. He used to feel sad about that. Now he’s usually just bitter.

Closing the door behind him with a foot, he mutters, “Yeah, yeah, play up the female ‘moon cycle’ card and see how effective it is the fifty-hundredth time.”

When Zander rounds the corner, sure enough there’s Aria standing by the pantry with a half eaten granola bar in hand. Aria decides to respectfully ignore the previous statement and instead says through a mouthful of granola, “Don’t you want to know why I got you up this morning?”

Rather hypocritically, Zander can’t be bothered to cook anything, so he grabs his current favorite box of cereal and milk--he’s getting calcium, at least. “Not especially. Are you going to tell me anyway?”

Aria smiles primly for a moment, and then gets uncharacteristically shy. And this, this is a moment when he actually does get angry, because Zander should not be the only one who gets to enjoy this side of Aria. This sweet girl who had everything taken from her but her half-competent brother and still comes out the other side with charm and innocence. “Slate’s going to be out on the sparring ground with Sage in an hour. He wanted to know if we wanted to come.”

Zander smiles into his cereal. He considers teasing her, but decides to let her be shy and sweet for this fleeting moment instead. “Sage, huh? I’ll text Forrest to see if he wants to come too. Tell them we’ll be there.”

:::::

Forrest lounges comfortably on the recliner in Sara’s living room, watching some sit-com with Sara while Jason cooks. It’s a familiar scene, but this time Sara actually called Forrest to come spend the morning with her and Jason instead of him just dropping in because he felt like it. Sara’s sprawled across the couch with her back to the arm and her legs stretching across the length of it.

Sara snickers at the characters on the TV and Forrest rolls his eyes. “How can you possibly still find that funny? It was a mediocre joke the first time we saw it, and I know you’ve binged every episode of this show, like, five times.”

Sara scoffs and waves an unconcerned hand in Forrest’s direction. “You only think it’s mediocre because it’s too advanced for you. This show is high level.” She smirks while looking at him from the corner of one eye. “Don’t worry, you’ll understand it when you’re older.”

Forrest huffs indignantly. “I don’t know why you all seem to think I’m a seven-year-old in a man’s body.”

“Well it doesn’t help that you have a baby face. I swear you’ve looked the same since you were ten-years-old.”

“I do not have a baby face!” Forrest insists indignantly.

“Don’t worry hon, you’re still a teenager, there’s no need to be ashamed that you can’t grow facial hair.”

“Wha--?” Forrest squawks.

“And some girls like that look, anyway. Yeah,” Sara examines him, “you could totally make the baby face work for you.”

“First of all, I’m five months from being twenty, and secondly...I totally have facial hair! I’ve been shaving since I was fourteen!” Forrest gestures to his, admittedly, totally clean shaven face for emphasis.

Sara twists and sits on the couch the right way to look at him, but tucks one leg under her. “Honey child, don’t lie, you only pick up that razor once, maybe twice a week.” Sara lifts a brow at his silence. “Am I wrong?”

Forrest droops and avoids her eyes. He mutters sullenly, “No.”

Sara smiles, sugary sweet, and pats him on the arm consolingly. “Don’t worry, Jason’s got a baby face too. Sometimes when we go out, I pretend I’m his sugar mama.”

“First of all,” Jason says dryly from the kitchen, “that is not true. Second, you’re definitely more of a cougar than a sugar mama.”

“Whatever, babe,” Sara huffs. “I want the record to state, though, that you did not deny having a baby fa--”

“Forrest, how do you want your eggs?” Jason interrupts loudly.

Sara snorts and quips back before Forrest can answer, “Since when do you know how to do anything besides scramble ’em?

Forrest laughs loudly, but quickly smothers it under a cough when Jason rounds the corner from the stove and scowls at them both. He points an eggy spatula at his wife. “What did we say about roasting the cook?”

Sara protrudes her bottom lip in a regretful pout. “Not to do it.”

“That’s right,” Jason answers back haughtily. He lowers the spatula, accidentally and unknowingly dripping some egg yolk on the tile floor, and addresses Forrest. “Now. You. How do you like your scrambled eggs?”

Sara turns her head innocently back to the TV so Jason can’t see her satisfied smirk. “Uh, not runny,” Forrest chokes out, honestly kind of unsure how to answer the question at all.

Jason nods and walks back out of view to, presumably, tend the scrambled eggs. Forrest and Sara make eye contact and they both burst into silent, stifled laughter. They get a lot of passive aggressive banging in the kitchen and a few pointed throat-clearings for their troubles.

After a minute or two of quiet, Sara mutes the TV altogether. “Alright, Fefe, there’s a reason I asked you to come over today.”

Forrest sighs at the nickname he can’t seem to smother into nonexistence, but nods all the same. “Yeah, I thought there might be.”

“Hmm. A perspicacious one, aren’t you?” Sara grins cheekily.

Forrest rolls his eyes. “Sure. Your point?”

Sara’s face clears and becomes serious, which...Forrest’s sister is not serious too often when she doesn’t need to be. “You remember about a week ago when we--”

“Yes,” Forrest nods. How could he not remember? He can’t lie and say the curiosity about the wolf isn’t killing him. He’s been too scared to ask anyone about it.

Sara half smiles at his eagerness. “Well, she paid us a visit two days ago.”

Forrest’s jaw slackens.

“Yeah,” Sara laughs, “I was pretty shocked too. Don’t ask me how, but Asher and Jason managed to track her down and convince her to come here to see me.”

“And?” jumps from Forrest’s lips.

“She had shifted to human for us. I think it’s been...a long time since she’s been human, but Asher and Jason found her that way in the forest. She agreed to come here, so we all talked--”

“Who’s ‘we’?” Forrest interrupts, sensing a missing part of the retelling.

“Well,” Sara laughs once in minor disbelief. “It was Asher and Jason--and me, obviously--and Slate, actually. He wasn’t meant to be there. He was just with me at the house when they brought her here.”

Forrest’s brows shoot up. “Wow. Was he...I mean, what did he do? Was he happy to see her? Was he nervous? What did she do? I’m surprised she stuck around, considering how things went a couple days ago.”

Slate has always been hard to read when he doesn’t want to be. It’s hard to get in his head, so Forrest honestly has no idea how he would have reacted. Sara shrugs a little. “I mean, it’s hard to know how he was really feeling--you know how he is.” Forrest nods. “But he and Gray--the wolf’s name, weird right?--seemed...to fit, somehow.”

Forrest’s brows furrow, trying to imagine the whole scenario. “How? What do you mean?”

“Well to be honest, they didn’t interact much, but when they did it was like they just...I don’t know, fit together. It was like they both picked up all the right cues from each other. Gray’s just as hard to read as Slate, but they just seemed right together. I mean, you know how he is with people.”

Forrest nods. “Thinks he’s people-illiterate, but somehow has a freaky talent for knowing exactly what you need?”

“I think the word you’re looking for is ‘perceptive’,” Sara huffs with amusement, but sobers again and nods slowly, as if realizing what she says as she says it. “But...yeah. Gray was...really vulnerable. I mean, it was too much for me to process at the time, but I think she was just trying really hard to be present and not totally freak out with all the unfamiliar people and surroundings. I saw Slate and Asher bond communicating--they both tried to give her little choices here and there, to give her some control, I guess. At the end, before she left, I saw them--Gray and Slate--talking but didn’t listen in on what they were saying. It seemed really good though. They interacted very little, all in all, but everytime they did, it just worked.”

Forrest blinks rapidly and leans back in his chair. “Okay that’s great but--what--she left? Is she coming back?”

Sara puts a warm hand on his forearm and looks at him intently. “Yeah, Forrest, she’s coming back. Tomorrow, actually. She’s going to help us, everything went really well. We’re going to be okay.”

Forrest covers her hand and asks seriously, “Are you going to be okay?”

Sara turns her hand over so she’s no longer gripping his forearm, but squeezing his hand. She smiles. “Yeah, Fefe. I’m...I’m so good.” She bites her lip, but can’t stop the smile from growing wider. She leans in and almost whispers with reverence, “I’m having a baby, Fefe. We’re having a baby.

Forrest leaps out of his chair and pulls her off the couch to hug her tightly. Laughing with happy surprise, he says, “I’m so happy for you, Sara, this is…” He laughs again. “I’m going to be an uncle!”

Sara squeezes him back tight enough to jostle his glasses, making them slip down his nose. When she releases him, he adjusts them with a wide smile. Sara grins and does a little dance for a moment before taking him by the hand and leading him to the kitchen table, “C’mon Uncle Fefe, let’s eat while we tell you the other thing.”

Jason’s already sitting at the table, having set the plate of eggs there with a setting for each of them. He smiles like he still can’t quite believe the news and pecks his wife’s cheek when she sits next to them. “The eggs should still be warm. Take your fill, Uncle,” he winks at Forrest.

Forrest scoops up a heap of eggs to put on his plate and promptly shoves some in his mouth. Through a mouthful, he asks, “So how exactly is this happening? I never even got a straight story on what exactly happened to Sage that first time.”

Jason and Sara exchange glances and Sara’s mouth is full, so Jason answers. “Well, Gray heals people, is the simple answer. Sara says she just covered Sage’s wounds for a moment and when she moved, he was basically good as new. She can do the same thing for Sara.”

“But,” Sara interjects, “Gray has some really interesting theories. She knows a lot about werewolf biology too--more than Paige ever did,” she finishes with a scoff.

Forrest rolls his eyes, but grins all the same because he’s enjoying the image of Paige being totally outsmarted. “Gray thinks she knows what happened to you?”

Sara shrugs and swallows before opening her mouth again. “It’s not so much that something happened, but...well, just listen. She thinks I was probably born with some genetic disorder that makes pregnancy risky--”

“But werewolves--”

“Just listen, you’ll want to hear this,” Jason chides.

Sara continues where she left off. “So I was born with this disorder--apparently werewolves are basically human in the womb until the third trimester, or something like that, so I developed it then--and now the werewolf healing is able to completely negate it while everything is normal. But when I get pregnant, my body tries to attack the new ‘injuries’ of a sort--some severe pregnancy symptoms--and can’t simultaneously heal the disorder, so I...I miscarry.”

Forrest notices Sara still can’t say the words without closing her eyes like she’s weathering a blow. Deciding not to mention it, Forrest surmises, “So Gray can heal your disorder, or something?”

Sara shakes her head. “The disorder is in my genetics. If the advanced healing wasn’t able to fix it as a fetus, Gray can’t fully get rid of it now. What she can--is going to do, is heal the pregnancy symptoms as they come, so my body can fight off the disorder that causes the--the failed pregnancies.”

Forrest digests for a moment. “Hmm. That’s...really interesting.”

“Yeah. She actually...she had some interesting things to say about...you, too.”

Forrest starts to tense up, because right away he knows that of course this is going to come back to his stupid eyes. Gray is just another stupid doctor or scientist who thinks she has all the answers and can “fix” his eyes. They’re broken. They’re just broken and they can’t be fixed. Forrest has to believe that or else he’ll kill himself all his life searching for a cure. “Sara, I don’t think I want to hear--”

“No, no, no,” Sara says quickly, softly. “Forrest, I’m sorry, I started that badly. She can’t heal your eyes.” Even though he never had any fantasy she could heal them, Forrest still flinches like someone hit him.

Sara pinches his arm. “Ow! What was that for?” He jumps.

Listen to me. You can’t be healed, I know you’ve accepted that a long time ago. Right?”

Forrest rubs his arm sullenly. “Right.”

“But you’ve always wanted answers, right?”

“Sara,” Forrest huff angrily, “I’m just a freak of nature and that’s it. I don’t know why we have to talk about it.” Sara slaps him upside the head this time. Not softly. “Ow, Sara quit it!”

Sara scowls at him. “Well then you stop feeling sorry for yourself when I’m trying to help you!”

“Okay, okay,” Jason puts one arm around Sara and holds the other one out in front of him in a placating gesture. “We’re all on the same team, here. Forrest,” he looks at Forrest directly, “we just talked about Sara developing a disorder in utero, yes?”

Forrest wrinkles his nose at the term “in utero”, but nods all the same.

“Well Gray seems to think a similar thing may have happened to you. She thinks your optic nerves didn’t form correctly and that it didn’t work 100%, but your werewolf genetics were able to heal you from being completely blind. You get to be nearsighted instead of blind, Forrest. And you’re not broken, your nearsightedness is perfectly explained by biology. It’s just a fluke abnormality. It’s not your fault. It could have happened to anyone.”

Forrest just stares at his brother-in-law for several moments. Then his eyes start to get watery and he clears his throat of tightness and blinks several times to try to tamp down the wetness. “Huh. Fluke.”

Sara punches his arm--softly, this time--and smiles at him with half her mouth. “Yeah bro, fluke. You’re the same as the rest of all us plebs, not a freak after all.”

Forrest meets her eyes for a second but then can’t handle the attention and so stares down at his now empty plate instead. Feeling very vulnerable but oddly freed, he ventures, “Hey um, Sara do you remember that I used to get those weird headaches sometimes? As a kid?”

Forrest can’t see her, but he thinks she nods. “Yes.”

Forrest sniffs a little and looks up, but only at the wall. He still can’t look either of them in the eye. “Ah, I actually...sometimes still get some headaches, when I’ve been staring at a screen too long, or whatever. I just...stopped mentioning them.” He clears his throat and actually looks down to meet his sister’s eyes. “You think maybe...maybe that’s just ’cause I didn’t heal all the way? As a baby?”

Sara looks sad for a moment, but then smiles at him fondly. “Yeah Fefe. You didn’t do anything wrong, promise. You’re not a freak and it’s no punishment. And hey,” she adds, “I bet you Gray would probably love to meet you and talk about it someday soon.”

Forrest swallows thickly, nodding. “Yeah, I think I’d like that,” he rasps.

:::::

“Forrest says he’s at Sara’s and that he’ll meet us in a bit,” Zander reports, stuffing his phone back in his pocket.

Aria nods, and the second Zander’s last spoonful of cereal leaves the bowl, she drags it from him and puts it directly in the sink. She twirls around with a pleased smile. “Alrighty, looks like you’re all ready to go.”

Zander glares at her with a mouthful of frosted mini wheats. He swallows and asks petulantly, “What if I wasn’t done yet?”

“The bowl was empty,” Aria points out.

Zander rolls his eyes and gets up to put his shoes on. “Well I might’ve wanted to fill it again.”

Aria shrugs and grabs Zander’s keys from the hook. The second she turns around and can’t see him sneak behind her, he uses his long reach to pluck the keys right out of her hand.

“Hey! You didn’t need to take them from me like that, I was going to give them to you.”

Zander puts the keys right back on their hook. “And they would have returned straight back to their home either way.” He grins happily. “We’re running.”

Aria rushes out the door after Zander before it closes on her. “Woah, woah, let’s not make any hasty decisions. Why waste our energy on running when we’re gonna need it to kick the Atwoods’ butts!”

When Aria doesn’t follow him to the dirt road that runs through the mini human populated “neighborhoods” on the property, he backtracks and puts both his hands on her shoulders to shove her down the drive, even when she digs her heels in. “Come on, Ari, don’t be a brat. We both know you just don’t like admitting I’m faster than you,” he says haughtily--and truthfully.

Aria curses under her breath, but follows him down the road to the sparring field all the same. She might grumble, but she knows Zander wouldn’t leave her behind. They’re all each other has, legally if not literally. Sure, they’ve made some really good friends here, the Atwoods are almost family, but not even they know the full story. Maybe someday, but not anytime soon. Aria and Zander are two thirds of the only people on Earth who have the full story, and it’s going to stay that way. Loyalty runs in their blood. Zander would die to protect his younger sister. He owes it to her and to...to that other third who deserted them. They count on him to protect his family. And he won’t let them down, no matter how much they have or haven’t done the same for him.

Zander shakes his head and pushes the pace a little as they near the halfway mark between their home and their destination. For some reason she’s been on his mind today. Memories...memories are simultaneously the only things that keep him going and the ghosts that haunt him everywhere he goes.

Aria, who has done a good job of matching Zander’s pace thus far, starts to slow until she comes to a full stop. Zander runs several paces past her, confused.

Slightly winded, Zander asks, “What’s wrong?”

Aria is...well, when Zander looks at her, really looks at her, he sees the ghosts dancing in her eyes as well. She’s more out of breath than her brother, but something tells Zander it’s not entirely from running. “Z do you…?” She takes a moment to breathe. Her voice is small and broken when she continues, “I just can’t get her out of my head today.”

Zander takes a physical step back. He curses himself for still not being able to handle any mention of her without having a visceral reaction. He puts his hands on his hips and looks into the distance, for a moment, unseeing, before he sighs and walks back to meet Aria where she stands, looking lost on the side of the dirt path.

Zander wraps her up in a tight hug, rocks them side to side a bit. Speaking into her brother’s shoulder, she says quietly, “I don’t want to miss her.”

Zander exhales and holds it for a minute, trying to find a voice for his thoughts. “I don’t know if I’ll ever stop missing her, Ari. It’s okay.”

“But it hurts.”

“I know.”

I hate her.” She sends through the bond.

I know.” Zander replies in kind.

They stand there, Zander trying futilely to shield Aria from monsters that only live in her head. Eventually Zander gives her one last squeeze before releasing her and turning back around, their destination in the distant view. “Let’s go, Aria.”

Zander can feel that Aria wants to say more, because she always does, in times like this. Like somehow it’s always on the tip of her tongue at any given moment. She knows he hates to hear it, but she says it anyway, like it’ll crush her if she doesn’t say it out loud. “She could still come back, Zander.”

He doesn’t turn back, just starts running. “Let’s go.”

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