Before the Fall

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Chapter 18

Gray runs a meandering path through the forest in her wolf form, enjoying it like having a cup of tea with an old friend after spending a long day surrounded by strangers. Which, really, isn’t a terrible metaphor. For all that has happened between Gray and the Atwoods, she can count all their interactions on one hand--strangers.

After Sara and her brothers and Jason had mostly celebrated their full--though Gray suspects the new revelation will be celebrated many times over, large and small--Gray had quickly excused herself with the promise of coming back in three days. They had panicked a bit, Gray could read it in their eyes, but she was so emotionally and mentally overloaded that she needed some time to herself.

Gray has always been an introvert, was always comfortable playing by herself as a child, and she’s gotten especially used to a certain level of solitude and privacy over the last three years. It hasn’t ostensibly been the greatest of balances, but it’s what she’s used to, so it will take some time for Gray to relearn how to interact with people on a regular basis. Sara can go a couple days without Gray’s help, in the beginning at least. But Gray doesn’t want to test the situation too much, so she has no plans of ever letting things go past a three day lull. Really, she should be spending some time with Sara daily, but she just can’t stomach it right now. Soon, though. A little more than seven months left of pregnancy is a long time, after all.

Before she could sneak out the door, Sara had effusively expressed her overflowing gratitude and offered many times in many ways for Gray to stay with them. And Gray supposes it would be hard for someone to believe that another human being--werewolf or not--would feel more comfortable in the woods than in an insulated structure. With a fridge. Nonetheless, Gray gracefully declined and took the first opportunity to bolt out the front door and book it to the woods where she felt like she could finally take a deep breath.

Once she felt as though she was far enough in the depths of the forest, she shucked her clothing without ceremony and shifted back to her most comfortable form. Her body had melted down onto four legs as easy as breathing. She took her folded clothes gently in her mouth, trying to get as little slobber on them as possible, and trotted off to her den.

Now, three days later, she’s enjoying her last run before stretching back up to her two-legged form. Ever vigilant, she notices a few large animal tracks that are distinctly not bear, not cougar, and definitely not elk prints. Which leaves the wolf. And there are no undomesticated wolves in Washington.

None of the Atwood pack would come out this far--Gray would have known if they did--so it has to have been rogues. Of the three rogues that had attacked Gray and the four Atwoods, one had certainly died at Asher’s hand and the other at Slate’s. The last one was mortally wounded, and Gray would have continued to assume it scurried off and died as well--except for the fact that Gray could never find its body. Gray had been out of commission for nearly a week after the encounter, so it’s technically possible it could have had enough life left in it to run far enough away that she couldn’t track it…

Or, more likely, something else had dragged off its body.

If it had been a circle of life moment, Gray would have at least been able to find the carcass. These kinds of animals didn’t horde large bones or eat them, they just cared about the meat. But there were no viscera covered bones to be found. So unless humans had come across the rogue while it was still alive and taken it in to try to fix it up or something equally unlikely, it had to have been other werewolves.

Gray doesn’t really know what to do with that realization.

But now she has to push it from her mind, because she has to be focused on the task at hand, something especially important in her two-legged, less familiar form. Days ago now, by the time Gray escaped Sara’s house, she had felt at least moderately capable in all motor functioning and words were starting to come easily enough that she could find most any word she needed as long as she focused. But still, it did take focus. It took mental effort and power. It was exhausting. So she really has no energy to waste running her brain round and round, trying to tease out whatever is going on out in the forest.

When Gray finally slows to a halt in front of her den, she sighs and closes her eyes, letting the shift overtake her. Her body burns and her muscles feel a little like jelly, but she makes it to two legs not much worse for the wear. Her hands are clunky and inconvenient to use for the first several minutes, but by the time she’s dressed, her movements are back on par with normal.

Now that the clothes are back on, she realizes they’re not exactly crisp and fresh. They’re not...filthy, but they’re not particularly clean either. She knows Sara would gladly lend her some clothes, would probably jump at the opportunity, but she doesn’t want to take anything from her. The point is to give, not to take. Gray can handle herself just fine in almost all ways--her job is to find those who can’t take care of themselves, in ways that Gray can do for them.

Gray supposes she could go pilfer another shirt or something easily enough, but just because she’d be taking from someone she doesn’t know doesn’t make it any less taking. She hates appearing unkempt in any way, grew up being taught to appear prim and proper in any scenario. But there’s really no choice, so she’ll grin and bear it and pretend no one notices.

Ignore the problem ’til it goes away. Foolproof.

Gray starts for Sara and Jason’s house at a jog, loosening up her joints and soothing the burn in her muscles. Soon enough, she’s met the forestline and it’s only a minute or two to Sara’s front door, going at a good clip. Gray has a moment of panic when the closest neighbor--probably one yards feet away from Sara’s house--opens the door, but the woman keeps her head down until she gets in her car, and Sara’s flinging her door open before Gray can knock anyway.

Gray quickly darts through the doorway and sighs in relief when the door closes behind her. She hadn’t quite realized how terrifying it would be for her to be seen by another pack member. Not even approached, just seen. The thought of being recognized nearly takes her breath away in fright and anxiety. She loves being outside, and yet she’s somehow become some twisted form of agoraphobic under these circumstances. However, it’s not drastically irrational. She knows word about her has passed through some channels, and if someone caught on to the fact that she’s the “healing wolf”, she’d be hunted by not just a few people who wanted to use her. There is another reason, though, that she doesn’t want to be recognized. One almost completely independent of what she can do. In fact, the people who she most wants to stay hidden from have never even seen her eyes the way they are now, her most identifiable trait.

There’s a reason Gray ran three years ago and never looked back.

“Hey girl, it’s just me today,” Sara brings Gray out of her shame spiral with a grin and a spunky greeting.

It gets a smile and a short breath of relief out of Gray. “Hi, Sara.”

Sara leads her to the kitchen where she had evidently been cooking pancakes, the little circles of batter starting to bubble on top in the pan. “Hi,” Sara says again, a little breathlessly, words coming out rapidly. “Sorry, I didn’t know when to expect you. Take a seat at the table, yep, there you go. How have you been? Here, open that cupboard door and grab a couple plates, no buts.”

Gray blinks, but when Sara narrows her eyes at her, Gray promptly obeys. As she takes two plates out of the aforementioned cupboard, she answers Sara’s question. “I’ve been good. How are--”

“No, no, no, nuh-uh,” Sara tsks as she flips a pancake. “Do not ’I’m good’ me. Your life is completely uprooted, tell me how you’ve really been.”

Gray purses her lips, trying not to smile, but she’s learning that Sara just has that effect on people. It’s like she carries a little bit of sunshine everywhere she goes, just enough that you feel warm and comfortable around her. Gray slouches a little in her seat, exhaling some of her anxieties and remembering that Sara really...well she really seems to care about Gray. She’s the first person in a long while to do so. Gray imagines she could say a lot of things and still have Sara’s highest respect. It’s a heady feeling.

Feeling a little like she’s been fed truth serum but also not upset about it, Gray admits while looking unseeingly out the window to the back yard, “It’s...overwhelming. I’ve been alone for a long time, been a wolf for a long time. It’s--well, these pancakes are going to be my first meal of human food in a long time. Put it that way.”

Sara raises her eyebrows at the pancakes but otherwise doesn’t visibly react, even though it has to be startling to hear. “Hm, that would be very overwhelming. Now if you don’t say my pancakes rock your world, I’m going to be very upset. If my only competition is rabbits and dandelions, this better taste like frickin’ Gordon Ramsay cooked it himself.”

Gray laughs quietly and hesitantly asks, “Is anyone else coming?” She can’t hear anyone else in the house, so Jason and any other guests are elsewhere at the moment, but that doesn’t mean someone couldn’t burst through the door at any moment.

Sara takes her eyes off the frying pan to eye Gray for a moment. Finally, she shakes her head and says, “For now, you’ve got the Sara show all to yourself. There are some people who’d like to visit for a bit later, but,” she points the spatula at Gray, “only if you want them to. You’re in control of your own destiny, chica.”

Gray exhales and tries not to feel guilty that she’s glad that it’s just her and Sara, for a while at least. It’s less input, less stimulus. Gray’s fairly confident that Sara isn’t testing her, like people in her past would. She’s already getting what she wants out of Gray, there’s not much more to her that Sara could take. Gray’s every move doesn’t seem to be analyzed and judged, here, with the two of them. Sara’s comfortable in her own space, which makes her more predictable.

And besides that...Sara’s someone Gray thinks she could, maybe, have been friends with, before. And maybe here in the after too.

Sara flips the last couple pancakes from the pan to add them to the already sizable tower next to her. She tosses the spatula carelessly in the sink and pulls a container of maple syrup out of another cupboard and brings that and the plate of pancakes to the table with her. She sits, and with the backs of her fingers, nudges the plate closer to Gray. “Well? Have at it.”

Gray’s feeling loose and brave enough to raise an eyebrow at Sara, before dutifully forking a pancake and putting it on her plate. She cuts a piece off with her fork--yes, she’s actually using a fork--and brings it to her mouth. It tastes...very sweet. Not many substantial things grow wild in the forest with a lot of sugars, so it’s a bit of a shock to her system.

Sara ducks her head to catch Gray’s reaction. “Soooo? How is it? Should I apply for the next season of Hell’s Kitchen?”

Gray rolls her eyes as she swallows, but gratifies Sara with a little smile anyway. “It’s pretty good.”

Sara’s jaw slackens and her eyes squint with incredulity. “Pretty good? What do you mean pretty good?”

Gray shrugs and smirks slyly with a mouthful of pancake. “They’re pretty good. I’d eat them again.”

Sara falls back in her chair and throws her hands up. “‘Pretty good’, she says. Well alright then. I suppose I should tear up my nonexistent culinary school applications then.”

Gray acknowledges this with another remorseless shrug and a grin and continues to eat the pancakes. She quickly notices that Sara’s not touching hers. Connecting the dots easily, Gray murmurs, “Nausea’s bad today?”

Sara huffs a self deprecating laugh and places a hand to her stomach. “Well it wasn’t when I started cooking, but...it crept up on me.”

Gray finishes up what’s on her plate and pushes it to the side. If left to her own devices, she’d probably eat more, but when she heals nausea, it tends to linger in a weird way. The stomach churning feeling heals fairly quickly, but her appetite tends to stay pretty absent for a while afterward. But Sara needs to eat a lot more than Gray does and she doesn’t want to wait.

She scoots her chair a little closer to Sara’s and hovers a hand over hers. “Can I?”

Sara nods and lifts her hand to meet Gray halfway. She squeezes it and says, with emotion straining her voice, “Of course. I’d be so grateful.”

Gray gives her a small smile before closing her eyes and breathing deeply. Healing comes as easy to her as does shifting into her wolf form. In her life before, she had a habit of running her hand along backs absently as she passed friends and packmates, or casually squeezing a hand or an arm, or ruffling hair enough to briefly touch skin, even going out of her way to shake hands with strangers. She’d heal pain as she went along, without hardly having to try, unless it was a significant wound or sickness. She’d take away someone’s stress headache, or someone else’s sore joints, or small cuts and bruises that especially seemed to stick to the little ones--all done in a few brief touches of skin to skin. The completely unjust side of things begins with the fact that Gray hadn’t even realized she could do what she did until she was probably nine-years-old, and by then she was old enough to know that people could be cruel and that she’d do well to hide it. For that reason, she had to let go of a lot of the obvious injuries to avoid being found out. It always killed her to see people in pain when she knew she could help them.

Maybe that’s where the guilt started.

Once, she was outside watching a...a little girl--where is she now, does she still hoard chocolate like gold, does she take care of her brother, do they take care of each other--and her friends play outside, and one of the human girls fell off a bike in just the wrong way, audibly snapping an ankle. Even knowing how risky it was, Gray couldn’t possibly let the girl cry and wail in pain while her friends scream in fright around her. So she rushed to the little one’s side and took her hand, hoping to be fast enough to fix it before anyone realized what happened.

She let the crying and screaming cover the sound of the girl’s leg slipping back into place, and Gray’s gasp as her own ankle snapped nearly in half, it felt like. The girl continued to wail for a few moments more, before she realized that the pain was gone. As she tapered off, she sat up with tear streaked cheeks and hiccuped, “I think I’m ok-kay. Ca-can you still call m-my mom, Grace?”

Gray had smoothed her hair down and squeezed her hand, trying to smile even though tears pricked her eyes from the sharpness of the pain in her leg. “Of course.”

When she was on the run, though, she had the freedom of anonymity. She could follow the path the moon paved for her to the site of a devastating car crash and put her muzzle to a hand before first responders arrived and heal just enough that the nicked artery causing fatal blood loss would transfer to her where it would only bleed for an hour, less and less with every minute. She could take on a potentially brain damaging concussion, experience the pain and confusion temporarily, when instead it could have altered someone’s entire life trajectory. She could climb through the window of a house on fire and heal burnt, smoky lungs from a child waiting to be found so she’d make it to the hospital when the firefighters got to her moments later.

There were things Gray couldn’t heal though. When she was brave enough to show her human face, she would visit the oncology ward in a hospital. Not to heal the cancer--it seemed that most chronic illnesses were out of reach of her moon gift--but to heal side effects of chemotherapy and radiation enough that the patients’ bodies could fight off the cancer before the treatment killed them. Kind of like Sara and her baby.

A few times she arrived at the site of a disaster and found that she was too late, that the people--humans or werewolves--had already lost all the breath in their lungs and would never breathe again. She could perform CPR if she’d only missed them by moments, but she’d found out at the beginning of her journey that trying to heal death would cause catastrophe in her body and no change in the dead. It seemed that sometimes even she couldn’t handle that kind of pain, as familiar as it was to her.

In almost every other scenario, pain was not something she feared. It was a welcoming embrace sometimes. A physical pain to inflict on her body the anguish she had caused in others. To her, pain meant relief. Gray sometimes felt cruel, using other people’s pain to soothe her own conscience, but it wasn’t always about that. Something that had been growing in Gray’s brain since she was nine was the correlation between pain and goodness. Pain was good, now, she’d learned. Her pain meant others healed. Her pain meant others lived.

No, pain was not the enemy after all. Pain was a friend that had never failed her.

In the present, Sara sighs and slumps in her seat next to Gray. Gray’s mouth salivates uncomfortably and she tastes bile. She has to remind herself to go slow. Sara was also evidently experiencing some not insignificant lower back pain and minor heartburn, but it fades quickly for Gray.

Sara takes several deep breaths, seeming to test whether or not it had really worked, and when she finds her body painless, she has to put a hand to her mouth to keep the tears at bay. “Gray,” she chokes out. “It’s working. It’s really working.”

Gray smiles. “It is.” Then, she summons the spirit of an old mentor and squeezes Sara’s hand once before releasing her and instructing with no room for argument, “Now eat.”

Sara doesn’t even try to suppress her laugh, but it’s not mocking. It’s just pure...jubilation. Wonderment. “Alright, alright. Are you my pregnancy guru now?”

Gray rolls her eyes tentatively, if such a thing is possible, and passes the syrup when Sara makes eyes at it. Trying to project confidence, she quips, “Maybe a more professional term would be ‘midwife’ or ‘doula’, but if it’ll get you to listen to me, then sure.”

Sara grins as she excitedly drenches her pancake in liquid sugar. “I haven’t been able to eat like this in weeks without hurling. I don’t care if Gorden Ramsay made them or if Asher made them, these pancakes are going to taste like gold.”

Gray laughs, but it fades into wariness quickly when she sees a mischievous glint find home in Sara’s eyes. Before she has time to react, a syrup-sticky pancake flies onto her lap and splatters mess all up and down her shirt and pants.

“Oops.” Sara’s grin is wolfish. “Looks like you’ll have to borrow some of my clothes now.”

:::::

Hey bro, I’m going to see Dad at the office, want in?

Slate wants to sigh at the sudden intrusion in his mind, but he’s completely used to it by now. He considers saying no for only half a second. Yeah. Pick me up.

Asher grins at him through the bond. Two steps ahead, as usual. I’m parked out front.

Slate makes sure Asher feels his enthusiastic eye roll before stretching and rising from his sprawling position on the couch. He picks up his phone from the coffee table next to him and winces when he catches sight of the time and date. It’s really been too long since he’s spent time with his dad. Real time. Slate stopped by the house two days ago to mostly act as moral support and give the occasional nudge to get back on topic while Asher gave Dad a rundown on...most everything. Sara had stopped by later that day to pass on her good news in person, after having the mini breakdown Slate knows she had but didn’t tell him about. Sara goes through phases where she battles with thoughts that tell her she doesn’t deserve to be happy when she should be grieving for lost opportunities, lost life. But Sara and Dad had always had a close relationship. Their humor is the same, they grieve similarly, they both feel immense responsibility as the remaining parent and the remaining feminine/motherly influence on their family.

All in all, though, Slate has gone a week without having a significant conversation with his dad beyond work emails and pointedly emotionally distant conversation about the huge new elephant in the room, which is Gray. For a family as close as the Atwoods, who live as close as them, and who work as closely as them, that’s practically forever and a half. Dad had done his best to draw Slate out over the week, but Slate never did well when pushed, as his parents learned early on in his life. Sara and Slate both got their stubbornness from their mother.

Slate marks his spot in his book before tossing it back on the coffee table and shoving his feet into shoes, grabbing his keys and wallet as he goes. He hears Asher shuffling around in his car, listening to the radio quietly. Of everyone in his life, Asher is probably the person most likely to be able to pull Slate out of a funk before he’s ready to do it himself. Slate tends to be the kind of person who shuts down on a hair trigger when feeling vulnerable. Most of the time, he just needs someone to sit with him. A lot of people don’t get that, and he’ll never ask for it. Asher gets it.

When Slate hops in the car, Asher tosses him a grin before peeling out of the driveway and kicking up dust in his wake. Realistically, the whole mini suburban area on the property, though relatively sparsely spaced, is in close enough quarters that one could walk anywhere and reach their destination in less than twenty minutes and a werewolf could run it in probably five, but sometimes it’s nice to keep elements of normalcy. Especially for those who don’t like to leave the property much, it’s important to still feel like a normal American, most of the time. Plus, people in town already think they’re halfway Amish, and there’s no need to perpetuate that myth.

You’re going to get someone killed someday, with your driving, Slate sends dryly to his brother, looking out the window.

Asher shrugs and winks. The name of the game is reflexes, baby. Don’t be jealous you don’t got ’em.

Slate side eyes his brother briefly before darting a hand out to smack him upside the head. Ow! Asher’s voice comes through his head. Then he tries to pinch Slate back, but when he finds himself evaded, he swerves the car.

Slate sends Asher a cocky, smug smile through the bond. Wanna try that again, reflex man?

Asher glares, but keeps his attention on the road. Whatever, is the muttered response. You’re just jealous because I’m faster than you.

Slate’s embarrassed to feel his pride somewhat rankled by the comment, but you couldn’t tell by the unimpressed look on his face. Still, he can’t help shooting back, And yet we both know I could have you face down on the ground before you could get an arm’s length away from me.

Slate and Asher share a glance right as they pull into their Dad’s office driveway. Asher throws his head back laughing and Slate smiles and shakes his head in quiet amusement. They’re both definitely thinking about the field day Sara would have with that conversation if she heard them. She’d be spouting off something about male egos and perpetuated social constructs about werewolf violence and aggression.

By the time they’re at the door, they’ve both calmed, but remain in good humor. Slate holds the door open so Asher can enter the small, open plan house they use as an office before him. He announces their presence, even though their dad can see them and could have heard them coming since they were halfway down the street if he was paying attention. “Hey Daddio! I lured the master of darkness out of his cave and we’re here to rescue you from work--which you shouldn’t even be doing on the weekend, anyway.”

Dad lifts his head from where he’s probably skimming through emails on a laptop. A wide, jovial grin slides onto his face easily at the sight of his sons. “Ah yes, good work, my son. How’ve you both been?”

He comes out from behind his desk to find a spot in the corner where there’s a little sitting area, some chairs and a couch. Dad stretches his legs out and throws an arm across the back of the couch, taking up as much space as possible like he always does. Slate’s always thought his dad’s presence could fill an entire stadium with warmth.

Asher sits on the opposite end of the couch and Slate sinks comfortably into the adjacent chair. Asher looks at Slate and then answers for both of them. “We’re good,” he shrugs. “A lot’s going on, obviously, but we’re dealing with it. We’ve been keeping busy. Slate’s been keeping to himself a lot though.”

Slate sighs and rolls his eyes at the obvious narcing and deflects before his dad can comment. “When Asher says he’s ‘keeping busy’, he means following Erin Baker around with puppy dog eyes.”

Asher gasps with indignation. “I do not.”

Slate smirks and bond communicates with Asher without even thinking about it. He sends Asher a slideshow of himself with wide eyes and an eager smile in various situations, always involving a certain pretty brunette.

Asher’s cheeks flame brightly. Dad throws his head back and booms a laugh that seems disproportionate to the quip. Their dad is loud and boisterous, but not that much. Slate lifts an eyebrow at his dad, eyes sparkling with mirth. “Something funny, Dad?”

Dad chuckles and wipes laughter-tears from the corners of his eyes. “I was just thinking how you remind me quite distinctly of a certain someone whose name comes from a mediterranean-native herb.”

Asher splutters and looks to Slate as if for help. Slate disappoints him thoroughly when he presses his lips together to hide a smile and shrugs. He hedges, “He’s not wrong.”

“Oh come on,” Asher gestures wildly. “There’s no way I’m as bad as Sage. I mean, it’s not even...”

Asher’s face totally blanks as he trails off distractedly and Slate plants both feet on the ground and puts his hands on the arms of the chair, ready to leap into action at a moment’s notice. Dad puts a hand on his son’s shoulder and says calmly, “Ash, what’s wrong?”

Asher blinks and looks from his dad to his brother with a slightly gobsmacked expression. Then a gleeful noise escapes. Slate rears back at the sound and feels as though he’s about to be severely mocked. He doesn’t know what for, but he knows the look on his brother’s face.

Asher slaps a hand to his mouth to try to hold in the laughter that so desperately wants to bubble over. Dad squints his eyes, trying to find the joke. “What is it, Ash?”

Asher covers his face with both hands and breathes deep to gather himself for a moment. He clears his throat and looks to his two compatriots seriously. “I have no idea how no one saw this before. Dad,” he turns to the man, “you know how Forrest is never going to live down the fact that his parents named him Forrest Atwood?”

Dad groans and snatches his hand back from Asher’s shoulder, offended at having the apparently disastrous decision brought up again. “Asher, it was popular at the time and your mom always liked ‘Forrest’ and refused to let my family name ‘ruin her vision’. That’s it.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Asher waves him off. “That’s old news now. I realized something even better.

Slate looks to the heavens. “The point?”

Asher can barely get the sentence out before dissolving into hysterical laughter. “Slate’s finally got a True Mate and her name is Gray. Slate and Gray.”

Yup, there it is. Eeeveryone loves having a laugh at Slate, go ahead, you know you want to.

This time Dad’s laugh really is booming. He and Asher start ribbing Slate when they can catch their breath enough in between laughs. “Hmm, I wonder what the wedding colors will be?” Dad wonders facetiously, grinning like the cheshire cat.

Slate shakes his head and sighs in resignation, though he can’t help his own smile. It is kind of funny. In a horribly ironic way that he will never admit. “Dad,” he says, “that wasn’t even funny. It hasn’t been two minutes and I’m over this joke already.”

“What are you going to name your kids? Pewter? Charcoal?”

“Oh, oh, I found the upside! Your couple name is Slay!

“No, no, no, it should be Grate! The ’Gratest’ love of all time!”

“Priceless! Great silver lining!”

No, Slate decides. The joke was not old after two minutes, it was old yesterday. Before its inception.

The three of them continue to joke and laugh for a long while, enjoying the morning as it fades to early afternoon. All the while, all it takes for Asher and Dad to break up into hysterical laughter again is a certain side eye, or basically anytime Slate says anything.

Eventually, though, Dad looks at Slate seriously, having a softness in his eyes. “How do you feel about Gray?” is the broad question.

Slate hums, thinking of all the ways he could answer that question. He settles on, “I’m really happy for Sara. She deserves this.”

Dad exhales and purses his lips. “I’m glad you feel that way. I do too. But I asked how you feel.” He tries a different question, “How do you feel about having a True Mate at all?”

Slate blinks because he...actually hadn’t thought about it like that. In his past romantic history, he’s found plenty of girls attractive, dated a few of them, but nothing ever stuck. Usually, the common denominator was that she wanted more than he could give. Whether it was time, attention, or “emotional availability” as were the words of more than one particular woman.

So maybe it’s not always what can afford to give, but what he’s willing to give.

Slate always figured he’d settle down eventually. Having a family was never not in the plans, he’d always wanted that. Always wanted a companion, someone he could come home to. He liked the concept of having someone to trust implicitly and lean on in times of trial, to break down with, but he just...could never picture it. He could imagine himself with children of his own, could imagine a shadowy feminine figure standing next to him in the metaphorical picture, but the reality…

It was just one of those things that became irrelevant. He didn’t need a companion, so why trouble himself and others around him? And really, if he’s being honest with himself, he doesn’t much like the idea of being that vulnerable with anyone.

Now...he just...he didn’t know. So he says so. He has to avoid his brother’s and father’s eyes to do it, though. “I...don’t really know.”

Silence lingers for a moment before Dad takes a big breath and lets it out slowly. “Do you want to know how it felt when I first saw your mom?”

Slate raises his head to find his father not staring in the distance with sad eyes like Slate thought he’d be, but meeting Slate’s evenly. He doesn’t look haunted, or distant, or a million miles away, like he often does when his late wife is brought up.

Slate nods.

“It wasn’t like you and Gray,” Dad starts out with. “And I’m not telling you this necessarily to give you advice, because this situation is one I never would have imagined for you in a million years. Frankly, it’s not one I would have wanted for you either.”

“Dad,” Asher frowns, looking uncertain.

Dad gives Asher a patient smile, but returns his attention to Slate. It’s a clear message that Slate has his full attention and that this isn’t a Slate-and-Asher situation. It’s not a Slate-and-Sara situation. It’s not a Slate-the-big-brother, or Slate-the-provider situation, it’s just Slate. Slate and Dad.

Dad says, “I don’t mean that as an insult, but it’s the truth. I would not wish this emotional turmoil on you. You’ve been through a lot, Slate, taken a lot on your shoulders. I want things to be easy for you, but it looks like that’s not the case this time, and that’s something I have to accept. I need to remind myself that I can’t fix things for my children and I can’t save them from grief. I haven’t been able to in the past, and I can’t now.

“So, I want to tell you about your mom and me because I want to give you hope for a future you could have, if you want it. Your mom and I are nothing like you and Gray--I’m willing to bet you guys have a one-in-a-million situation on your hands. But,” he looks deeply into Slate’s eyes, and his voice becomes thready and choked “I believe that everyone deserves the kind of love I got to share with your mother. And I believe that you can have that with Gray.”

So, Brett Atwood tells his two oldest sons about how he met Camille Santiago on a college campus only an hour’s drive from the very location he’s at all these years later with his two oldest sons. He tells them how he caught the barest glimpse of her through a crowd and it was like his body was just drawn to her. The quad where they walked was crowded with people, but it was like the path to her cleared, like the moon herself paved it. Camille had turned and caught his eye and he saw her narrow her eyes at him, trying to figure him out. Like she felt the draw too, but couldn’t figure out what it was. She wasn’t a werewolf, she didn’t even know they existed. She had never felt that kind of preternatural influence before, but it caught a grip on her just as tight as it did Brett.

The road for them was rocky. “True Mates” does not mean easy. True Mates means compatible. True Mates means future. It’s not a promise, it’s just hope. Brett was fortunate enough that Camille trusted her gut instincts enough to give him a chance. They fought for each other just as hard as any other couple had to. The foundation they built was theirs not the moon’s or any other supernatural force at work.

What True Mates means to Brett Atwood is finding a woman he would have otherwise never looked at twice. He would have thought she was uniquely and strikingly beautiful, but would never have pursued a human woman with no knowledge of the supernatural. What True Mates gave him was the most beautiful life he never hoped for. He had no idea how good things could be, before her. He doesn’t believe in perfect people, but hell, if anyone was, it was Camille. He would have had a happy life with someone else, sure, but he knows deep in his soul that he would never have been as happy with anyone else as he was with Camille, and that was what True Mates gave to him.

And if his son has a shot at that kind of future? Brett is not going to let him pass it by just because it’s something he never knew to hope for.

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