Before the Fall

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Chapter 17

“Aria and Zander are on their way?” Slate confirms.

“Yup,” Sage says, trying to hide his smile. Sage knows that, well, his crush on Aria is pretty obvious. Even though “crush” seems like too much of a...a dorky romance novel word to use. It’s just...she’s so… She’s just perfect. Yeah, that sounds right.

Hopefully he won’t make a fool of himself when they get here. For that reason--among others--Sage is glad he’s Slate and Sara’s brother because he’s been wrestling with them since he was Raven’s age, probably. A lot was just fun play, but it got Sage used to being physical and besides that, Slate and Sara never pulled any punches they didn’t need to. Of course they never fought with him like they would each other, but they never quite met Sage completely at his level. They were always one step ahead, enough to challenge him. They never babied him, that way. There are a lot of times Sage feels like his father and older siblings treat him like he’s still seven and doesn’t know anything. There are times when he feels like they just underestimate him. But when it comes to helping Sage reach his potential, that’s when they meet him just one step above his level to help him grow.

Then there are the times when Sage’s mind has spun him in circles and his teenage bravado convinces him he’s bigger and stronger and smarter than he is. Like when he stumbled out in the middle of the night to find his older sister and two brothers as they guarded the far boundaries of the property. Who was Sage kidding? At the time he had no idea what it meant to patrol a werewolf pack’s land. After that, his dad sat him down and they had a talk about how, as small in number as they are, werewolves live in the human world. That means that most of the time, they live on human terms and by human laws.

But there are times when werewolves operate on their own legality. At their essence, being part wolf means being part primal. Part animal. And animals don’t live on human terms. They live on nature’s terms.

There are reasons we send out patrols three times a week, my son, Dad had told him, even when everything appears safe and quiet. And there’s a reason we check in all the time with our packmates who don’t live here on the property. It’s to make sure we’re safe when other werewolves forget too much about the human part. The thing is, Sage, his dad had put a hand on his knee where they sat facing each other, we are stronger than humans. We are faster than humans. We heal a heck of a lot faster than they can. That makes us very powerful. And sometimes, he’d sighed, werewolves abuse that power.

Like Uncle Ben says, right? Sage had said back understandingly. Dad had looked at him weirdly. Sage...you don’t have an uncle named Ben. You don’t have any uncles, actually.

Sage had rolled his eyes and smiled knowing he’d gotten the better of his father this round. Not my uncle, Dad. Peter Parker’s uncle. Come on, Dad, you gotta know Spider-Man! “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Dad had stared blankly for another breath before throwing his head back with laughter. He grinned and clapped a hand on Sage’s shoulder. Ah, yes. Uncle Ben, I should’ve known right away. Then he sobered a little, though a small smile still played on his lips. But there is some truth to that, Sage. You have different abilities than humans do, and for that reason, you are held to different standards. Do you understand?

Sage nodded meekly. Yeah, Dad. I understand.

So...Sage knows he has some growing up to do, but he thinks it’s alright for now that he just gets to worry about impressing his crush. Speaking of his crush, Sage sees her and her brother approaching at a moderate pace, but still a good ways away from the sparring field where they stand. And fortunately, without hearing distance. “Ready, bud?” Slate nudges Sage.

“Is Sage gonna kiss Aria?” Raven asks with a wrinkled nose.

Sage’s cheeks warm and he glares at Raven. “No. I’m not trying to kiss her, we’re just sparring.” Sage lifts his gaze to look at Slate, feeling quite grumpy. “Why is he still here anyway?”

“Hey!”

Slate raises an eyebrow at Sage’s eyebrow, making him wince and duck his head. Slate’s the kinda guy who can just do that. Sometimes, Sage hides in the bathroom and practices some of Slate’s expressions in the mirror, but they never come across the same. “Sorry, sorry. But I mean...what is Ray gonna do while we spar?”

Slate smiles one of those fond half smiles that are only directed at his siblings. “Don’t worry about it, Sage. I asked Dad to come pick him up.”

Sage furrows his brows. He’s pretty sure he didn’t see Slate pick up his phone. “When?”

Slate shakes his head and huffs a laugh. “Through the bond, Sage. Don’t worry, it’ll come to you soon. You can do it with Asher sometimes now, right?”

Sage toes the ground with a frown. “Yeah I guess. Aria can do it with Zander all the time, though.”

“They’re very close. They’ve gone through a lot together. And she’s a special girl, Sage, you know that.” He gives Sage a private little smile then.

Sage sighs and acquiesces. She is a special girl. And she deserves to be happy. He looks up again to see the two siblings kicking up dust not too far away now. He starts to raise his hand in a wave, but then Sage does a double take when the light highlights the shine and shade of Aria’s hair. Suddenly every single memory of the wolf flashes across his eyes. The blurry memories of her the night when the rogues attacked him. Then that memory merges with the weird visions he had about that night, when he saw...for just a second he saw her as a human and she looked...she looked like…

He gasps involuntarily. He jabs his brother in the side with an elbow without taking his eyes away from Aria. “Slate, Slate, Slate.”

Slate must have really been surprised because Sage actually hears the breath whoosh out of him at Sage’s jab. “What?”

Sage says breathily on an exhale, so quiet he almost can’t hear it himself, “Do Aria and Zander have a sister?”

Slate doesn’t even pause for a second before he turns and moves so he’s directly in front of Sage, blocking his view of Aria and Zander, who seem to have just stopped in their tracks. Absently, Sage thinks Slate must have told them to stop and wait, over the pesky bond, of course. Sage’s eyes don’t focus on him and he leans around his brother’s wide frame to catch a glimpse of Aria again, just in case he forgot the way her hair looked or the way her nose sloped, just like...just like... But then Slate shifts over to break Sage’s eyeline again.

“Sage,” Slate says firmly, but quietly. Likely trying to speak low enough to be certain that Aria and Zander can’t hear. “I need you to look at me.”

Sage is sure his eyes are as wide as saucers and his jaw is dropped wide enough that he could catch flies. Finally he drags his gaze up to meet Slate’s eyes. “Yeah?” he asks faintly.

Then Slate says the exact opposite of what Sage was expecting him to. “I think you’re right.”

“Wha--?” he splutters, probably too loudly. “I’m...I’m right?”

Slate puts his hands on Sage’s shoulders and shakes him just a little. His eyes stare intensely into Sage’s. “I don’t know for sure, but I think so. Do you know what that means?”

“Uh, no…”

“Sage, Aria and her brother are very private about their life before they came here, right?”

“Yeah, but why--”

Slate bowls right over him. “It’s not our business. If they don’t want to share this with us, we won’t make them.”

Sage reels back, feeling almost betrayed. He whisper-shouts with no small amount of anger, “And hide this from them? Slate, they deserve to know! We can’t just--I can’t just hide this from Aria.”

“I know, Sage,” Slate says, shaking his head. “And I agree with you. We won’t keep it from them long, but we need to think about Gray--the wolf--too. She wants to stay hidden.”

“But Slate--”

“I know Sage,” Slate says, appearing to be beginning to become impatient. Slate doesn’t often lose his patience. But Asher tells him when Slate loses his patience, it’s usually just at himself. “We’re going to tell them soon. We’re not trying to keep any secrets from anyone, but we have to find the right way to share what we know with both sides. Gray is very vulnerable right now. She’s doing something incredibly kind for us even though she doesn’t really have to. We need to be considerate of her. We will tell them. All three of them. Soon. But not yet.” He pauses for three breaths, letting Sage digest. “Do you understand, Sage?”

Sage lowers his gaze to somewhere on Slate’s collarbone, feeling lost. His brows furrow. “How do you know so much about the wolf? Gray?”

Slate sighs and drops his hands from Sage’s shoulders in favor of tugging him closer, letting Sage bury his face in his big brother’s chest. “Right now I just need you to trust me. I promise I will tell you what I can soon. Tell you what,” Slate says with a squeeze, “I’m going to see Gray tomorrow and I’ll see if she’s okay with you coming around, alright? And if not, I’ll ask her what she feels okay about me telling you. But you understand I have to respect both sides, right?”

Sage hesitates, but nods against Slate’s chest. He just doesn’t like everything feeling so...unstable. He just wants everyone to be happy. And won’t Aria be happy if she can see her sister again? But Sage also knows that Slate always does the right thing. He and Sara always know what to do. They’re kind of like his dad that way, but even Dad listens to Slate and Sara sometimes. It seems like that makes him sad and happy at the same time, when he does that. Sometimes it’s hard for Sage’s dad to be happy. And all Sage wants is for everyone to be happy.

But it’s just so hard for Sage to understand how seeing their sister could make Aria and Zander unhappy. If Sara went away for a long time, Sage would be ecstatic to have her back. But maybe...maybe it’s a little like when his dad went away. Well, he didn’t go away, but when Mom died, it was a little like Dad went away too. Sage just wanted him to hug him and put him to bed and sing songs while he cooked banana pancakes while wearing that silly apron he liked to wear. But he wouldn’t. Asher once tried to help him understand that it wasn’t that Dad didn’t want to do all those things, but he couldn’t. And Sage...well, he started to feel a little bit angry. Because Sage just lost his mom--his mom--and he still had to go back to school after a couple weeks. He had to get out of bed, and pour his own cereal to eat, and do his homework. His dad got to just stay in bed and let Sara and Slate do all his jobs. Sage wasn’t even allowed to talk about his mom when his dad was around, most of the time. Sage loved his Dad. So much. But he was also angry at him.

Maybe that’s what Aria and Zander feel like.

So Sage pushes back from Slate and looks him in the eye with determination, trying to channel his inner Slate. “Okay. The best thing I can do for Aria and Zander is be a good friend so they know whatever happens I’ll always be their friend. Right?”

Slate’s lips quirk up into a little smile, but it’s not amused, it’s proud. He ruffles Sage’s hair as he says. “That’s right.”

“Everything’s gonna be okay?” Raven asks in a small voice after tugging on Slate’s belt loops.

Sage hears a familiar truck engine coming down the road opposite of where Aria and Zander are still stopped. As Sage’s dad parks and gets out of the truck, Slate picks up Raven with one arm and holds his chin with his other hand, so they’re directly eye to eye. Raven tugs on a tuft of Slate’s hair this time. He repeats, “We’re gonna be okay right?”

Slate looks at Raven and says simply, “Yes.”

Raven looks at his big brother seriously for a couple more seconds before nodding and saying decisively, as though it was his idea, “Yes, everything’s gonna be fine.” He starts to wiggle his legs. “Now put me down, I’m gonna try to get Dad to take me to the movies!”

It makes Sage roll his eyes and try to muffle his laughter and Slate does what’s probably his version of a chuckle, which is really just a huff of air. From the other side of the field, Dad yells with his hands cupped around his mouth--Raven is human, after all, “I heard that, bugger! Who’s the boss here?”

Slate lets Raven tumble out of his arms and run to meet his dad. “Me, on days that end in Y.”

At that, Slate shakes his head and actually does chuckle, while Sage coughs to cover a laugh--his baby brother is so not cool. Dad, on the other hand, looks baffled as he reaches his youngest and scoops him up. “Where in the world did you learn to say that?”

“Jason taught it to me,” Raven’s tooth-gapped smile says.

Dad shakes his head, still laughing, and pulls Sage in for a one armed hug. “Hey hot stuff, ready to blow Aria out of the water?”

Sage gasps in horror. “Dad, they’re not in China, they might hear you.”

Dad snorts and glances at Slate. “Where’d they get all their sass from? Because it wasn’t me.”

Slate shrugs and smirks. “Sara, probably.”

Dad laughs and claps Sage on one shoulder. “Sorry, bud. I’ll leave you to it. Don’t go too easy on them, Slate,” he winks, and starts toward the car.

Slate just rolls his eyes with a half smile and he and Sage both wave their goodbyes. When they turn, Slate raises a hand to Aria and Zander, who have evidently both gotten bored and are now laying on their backs on the grass on the side of the dirt path and trying to dump torn up blades of grass on each other. When they don’t see right away, Slate puts two fingers in his mouth and whistles entirely too loudly. Sage winces at the high pitched noise, but it certainly startles Aria and Zander. He hears Aria yelp, and Zander takes advantage of the moment of weakness to drop a bundle of grass down the back of her shirt.

Sage laughs and thinks to himself that, yeah, it will be hard to keep the secret, but if he can help these two people keep smiling and playing, he’s done as good as he can do.

:::::

Slate does the majority of the informal “phys ed” courses tailored for the werewolves--meaning, self defense, control over shifting, offensive/defensive movements, etc.--which also fulfills the physical education requirements for their home school. So he took Sage, Aria, and Zander through a familiar warm up routine before deciding to just let them have at it. Zander thinks that Slate really just...gets it sometimes. He and Zander have never particularly connected--which is not to say Zander doesn’t love him like family, but Zander has always been a little too intimidated to try to form a close bond like he has with Forrest and Asher, and their dad. The Alpha. And isn’t that a trip? That Zander found a way to find a father in an alpha, considering the experiences he’s had in the past.

But Slate carries a certain presence with him. Forrest only ever seems to vaguely understand when Zander tries to put it into words, because he’s never been anything other than Slate’s brother. Asher seems to understand a little better, maybe because he and Slate are closer, Zander’s not sure. Or maybe it’s an age and maturity thing. But Slate doesn’t necessarily come across as friendly to people who aren’t his flesh and blood. He loves everyone in the pack, sure, and they all certainly love him back, but there is a certain distance there. Like...it’s public knowledge that Slate would eviscerate anyone who tried to harm a packmate, but he’s not the guy you go to for advice with a school crush or an interpersonal conflict at work.

That said, he does have a certain way of getting secrets out of you. Alex, a friend of Zander’s who lives across the street and a few houses down from him, once happened to find himself anxiously hovering around the edges of a social pack gathering, unsure of how to handle himself while his parents--both present at the gathering--were going through a nasty divorce and he felt like any move he made would come across as taking sides. Apparently Slate had appeared basically out of thin air with a plate of his favorite snacks and a simple, “Something bothering you?” and Alex had almost involuntarily spilled his guts about the divorce. Asher had conveniently shown up a few moments later with friends in tow--Zander and Forrest included. Slate left soon after--his presence had only been a quick flash in the scheme of things, but suddenly Alex’s problem was solved without him having to make a move either way.

Another time, a mom of twins Aria has babysat for told Aria about a day when she was feeling flustered as she dropped her kids off at the home-converted-children’s homeschool/daycare when Slate was dropping Raven off. She and Slate happened to walk out at the same time, and Slate had asked, “Can I pick up your girls and take them home for you at the end of the day?” She had burst into tears and apparently cried a wet spot in his shirt, stumbling through an explanation that her human military husband had just gotten deployment orders. The mother word vomited about the interaction to Aria the next time she came over, so shocked and pleased she had been on the receiving end of Slate’s kindness. He’s so undemonstrative that it makes it feel extra special when you have his attention and support.

On any given day, Slate’s eyes look like they see right through you, and Zander has all too many secrets for that. So he and Slate have a solid bond as, respectively, Slate’s brothers’ friend, and Zander’s friend’s brother.

So, circling back, what Zander is able to appreciate the most about Slate is his ability to just get it. He’s down to Earth, not proud, and observant. What Zander and Aria were expecting from this outing, and probably Sage too, was a guided practice of the basic fight techniques many werewolves have adopted. But what Sage, Aria, and Zander didn’t really realize they wanted was just to hang out and have fun, using sparring as a vehicle. So Slate just lets Aria and Sage tease and laugh their way right into their own wrestling match, though Zander is certain some of their form has to be killing Slate from the inside out.

The only unfortunate part is that, since Forrest has yet to show up, Zander is left with Slate. Feeling unsure, Zander rolls back on his heels and scratches the back of his head with one hand. He scrounges up, “So, ah, how’s things with the orchard?”

Slate, previously watching Sage and Aria with his arms folded, turns to look at Zander with a raised eyebrow. He waits a moment before laughing and shaking his head. Sure, it was more the “heavy breathing” kind of laughter than belly shaking laughter, but still. Slate was laughing. Mountains must be moving somewhere.

“Zander, your efforts are noted,” he says, looking amused. “Now get in your stance and let’s spar, hand to hand.”

Zander sighs in relief and barely has enough to bend his knees and balance his weight properly before Slate’s just a blur of motion coming at him.

Later on, when Forrest had arrived, Zander could tell there was something he wanted to tell him. Forrest was his best friend, and Zander could tell something had changed since the last time they saw each other. In a quiet moment as they were preparing to split off for family dinners, Forrest had sidled up to Zander with a faint smile on his face and whispered, “Hey Z, you won’t believe the conversation I had with Sara this morning.”

Zander had cocked his head. “Good news?

He nodded and his smile was full of wonder, like he couldn’t quite wrap his head around it still. “Yeah, I mean...I think I found out why my eyes don’t work.”

Zander blinked. “Whoa, dude. Really? How?

Forrest ducked his head in close like he was about to share something he knew he wasn’t really supposed to. “Sara found it out. Zander, there’s...there’s this wolf--

“Forrest,” Slate had said with command. It was spoken with enough emphasis that it was obvious to Zander that it was spoken through the bond as well. “Time to go.

Forrest’s head snapped up and he looked completely guilty. Zander knew that whatever he was about to say would probably not be repeated again any time soon.

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