Before the Fall

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Chapter 21

9 Years Ago, Northern Washington Wilderness…

He roars in anger when he sees his men and women being taken out. When they started shooting, one of the intruders had started running. Fortunately he was a little runt, too young for anyone to believe if he tried to reveal the projects he’d been hiding out here. Another young wolf had been hit hard enough that he’s sure she won’t survive--but then true chaos erupted.

Now there’s this reckless wolf charging men with guns as if he has a death wish. This black wolf can’t seem to be stopped and his men keep falling, so he’ll have to take matters into his own hands. He charges the wolf and finds that he’s a young one too. Strong, but young. He’ll be an easy kill. He’s got the young wolf on his back and is just about to rip his throat out when he hears his little Evie scream and the next thing he knows, his face is on fire.

He doesn’t even remember the last thing he saw.

:::::

Present Day, Atwood Territory...

A few days ago, one representative from every household in the Atwood pack, including those who lived in town away from the property owned by the Atwood family, gathered together in the Atwoods’ backyard to be briefed on some major goings-on. Zander had obviously been his household’s representative, because there was no way he was going to let Aria shoulder that responsibility. He was the guardian, by law and otherwise.

The Alpha had quieted the uneasy group and spoke in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, which, with humans among them, was loud.

“Do not be alarmed, my friends, we will work through this together,” he’d told them firstly.The reports filed by increasing amounts of patrols in the last several weeks have reported disturbances along the western borders in particular. It seems that something has come to our forest and is becoming increasingly confident. We have reason to believe there are rogues settling somewhere in our forest. There was an incident on July 27"--some murmuring erupted--”which involved my children and my children only,” he continued pointedly. “My three oldest were on errand for our pack as a whole, yes, but there were some things that transpired that caused them to request that the incident stay confidential for a time.

“If you’ll remember, not long after that, I sent out notice that we would be sending capable wolves on patrol at smaller intervals as a precaution for minor disturbances that occurred recently. I am here to tell you now that these disturbances are becoming too large to be called “minor”. As I said, we have reason to believe there are multiple rogues in our forests who are behaving differently than those we have encountered before. The incident on July 27 involved multiple rogues that appeared to be working together. Since then, reports have stated that they’ve found evidence of recent presences too near to our boundaries in the form of still freshly bloody large game, foreign scent trails, and sporadic paw prints.”

He sighed then, as though he was tired and wished he didn’t have to deliver this news. “The last straw that will now provoke active defense by our pack was another attack yesterday.” Gasps all over. “Aaron and Barrett Wilson were on night patrol when a rogue--just one, thank goodness--appeared and attacked them. Fortunately, it was old and hungry and was dispatched quickly. However, it cannot happen again. Twice is three times too many. What needs to happen now, is sporadically timed patrols, in an attempt to avoid the rogues planning attacks when they know we’re out. The next course of action we’ve decided to present to you all for approval or denial is search parties.”

Zander himself had not been too shocked because of experiences he’s had in past packs. It seemed that in this part of America, attacks by rogues were not common and most warring between packs could be mostly avoided with diplomacy. That had not been the majority of Zander’s experience.

“We propose that, in an attempt to quell the threats instead of waiting for them to come to us, we explore the forest beyond where our boundaries lay to see if we can track where these rogues are coming from.” He’d asked next in a booming voice, “What is your vote?”

There was silence for a moment, before one of the older pack members raised a fist and said, “The Wilsons support you, Alpha. We refuse to let what happened to our sons happen to anyone else.”

Another voice raised up. “The Kims support!”

And another. “The Woolleys are in support!”

All at once, every person in the gathering voiced their ringing endorsement for the Alpha they all loved and trusted implicitly, Zander included.

By the time the cries died out, Alpha had a small, proud smile on his face. He raised his hand as if to gather attention again, though he never lost it. He responded, “I appreciate your support beyond words. You all have my love and support right back.” He put his hand on the person standing next to him, and Zander could see now that it was Slate. “My son will be contacting you shortly with more instruction. Thank you all for coming. You may return home or stay for as long as you want.” He smiled widely, then. “My home is yours.”

Most people stayed to mingle and generally enjoy the feeling of pack and family. Zander elected to go home and tell Aria the news before she busted out of the house and badgered Sage until he broke down--which would likely take mere minutes--and told her all his and his family’s dirty secrets.

Now, it’s early in the morning and Zander somehow finds himself trotting alongside Slate, Jared Olsen, and Kimberly Everett, doing rounds beyond the boundaries of the Atwood property, using all five senses to search and take note of anything obviously out of place. Today they’re doing rounds in the general northeast quadrant of the forest. It’s farther than Zander has ever been and he’s a little apprehensive about it, but the wolves he’s with are very capable.

All the sudden, Slate lifts his head and his whole body comes to attention, and Zander starts to smell a foreign scent. He smells blood and musk and sour herbs. Then Jared and Kimberly perk up as well, looking to Slate as search leader. He tells them through the bond all at once, Approach slowly, stay close, fan out.

All four of them get in a line, left to right, and follow Slate’s pace. Zander lifts his nose to the breeze and scans side to side like he’s been trained. A moment later, Kimberly stops in her tracks and sends a thought with excitement--not the happy kind, the “all my senses are engaged and at peak attention right now” kind. Clocked it, straight ahead at twelve o’clock, behind a thicket of wild berries. It’s hard to smell beyond the smell of the berries, I’ve only really got visual confirmation--you guys?

Zander cranes his head to see around a tree, and sure enough, he sees the tips of brown ears, unmistakably wolf-like. He takes a brief moment to marvel at Kimberly’s vigilance to catch such a subtle sign.

Zander, Jared and Slate all send back affirmatives. Slate nudges his snout into Jared’s flank, who does the same to Kimberly, who passes it down to Zander. It’s a common gesture for emphasis, attention, and comfort. Stay close, he reiterates. These missions are only for reconnaissance. We circle it as a group, make wide rounds. Follow single file. Keep it and each other in sight.

Slate starts at a slower pace than they walked before, taking care to place every paw soundlessly on the forest floor. Zander directs his attention at the rogue, as instructed. The mistake therein is that he forgets to let his other senses continue to track his surroundings.

Slate halts abruptly and howls a message, both to his immediate compatriots and to wolves back home. It’s not entirely likely they’ll be able to get reinforcements in time, but if there are more rogues than the one that’s just leaped onto Jared’s back which is totally different than the one they were tracking, they’re going to need all the help they can get. It feels like everything is in shambles from one second to the next.

Jared releases his own howl, though his is one of pain and shock. Slate and Kimberly react immediately, pouncing on the quarrelling wolves and ripping the attacker off of Jared. Zander recovers from his shock a second later and, on the other hand, leaps in the way of the other rogue--the first one, the brown one--that’s in the process of jumping into the fray to gang up on Jared. Zander catches it dramatically mid jump and slams into its side. Zander recovers first with a swift roll to his feet and catches the rogue by its right shoulder, missing its throat by inches.

Just as Zander manages to catch the rogue deep in its vulnerable underbelly in a killing blow, he’s tackled by another wolf, somehow yet another rogue. He can’t help the howl that rips through the air. He’s caught off guard and unbalanced and the rogue has him right where it wants him and Zander is suddenly terrified--

Until his sister comes in and deftly tackles the rogue and swipes it across the throat, all in a matter of moments. Zander lays there on his back wondering how in the world Aria managed to hear his howl and get there soon enough. Things get very quiet in the wake of triple rogue carnage and the chests of all five wolves are heaving with breaths of fear, of anxiety, of relief, of shock--take your pick.

Zander gets to his feet and suddenly Slate blocks his view of Aria and Zander gets up quickly. In the commotion he hadn’t noticed anything, but now he sees that there’s something different about Aria. Her scent is off, she looks slightly bigger--swollen? That doesn’t make any sense, but Zander is terrified that whatever she’s managed to do to herself by saving him, she’s damaged beyond repair and Slate is trying to spare him the sight.

As Zander tries to push his way through the wall of muscle and fur that is Slate, the man sends to all of them, Jared, Kimberly--go back and go straight to my dad. Tell him what happened and he’ll fill in the blanks for you. Trust me. His eyes flick back to Zander. Calm down, she’s fine. I’m going to move and you’re going to stay right where you are and just think and be calm for a moment. Okay?

Zander barks and tries to dodge around Slate with no luck. Zander growls, but Slate won’t budge. Slate actually nips his ear and reiterates with emphasis, Okay?

Zander breathes heavily and doesn’t quite seethe back, Okay, got it. Let me see my sister.

Slate moves but stays close enough to referee, so while Zander tenses all muscles to leap forward, he manages to keep still. The first thing Zander thinks is why is Aria submitting to me? Because she’s just...laying on her belly with her eyes down.

But then Zander takes her all in. The larger frame, all muscle in a way Aria isn’t. The coarser looking fur that comes with age. The scent: it’s faint but it’s that ever present smell of medicine that Grace always hated but couldn’t get rid of.

Zander immediately recoils, mostly out of shock, but also from the immediate realization that his sister has herself made so vulnerable in front of him like she has to hide. Like...like she wouldn’t trust him not to hurt her but would let him anyway.

But this is Grace--this is my sister, she came back! Zander’s mind screams all at once.

Zander’s next instinct is to slowly walk forward--only for Slate’s sake, he’d make it in one leap if he had it his way--until he’s right in front of her. She still doesn’t look up. Zander lets his instincts take over and lowers his head and rubs his cheek with hers, ever so gently. He licks her forehead in one swipe, something wolves usually only do with family or lovers.

Grace finally finally raises her head, but still won’t stand in front of him as her equal. Zander recoils slightly because he’d forgotten that her eyes were no longer the chocolate brown they’d both inherited from their mother. He has several thoughts all at once. He momentarily mourns the fact that he can never look at his sister and see her the way she’d been for his whole childhood, that something has changed permanently about her. And….it reminds him that he’s angry, so angry.

He backs up several steps, rapid fire, and digs his claws into the dirt involuntarily.

But the moment that sticks the most is when, in her eyes, in her face even as a wolf, he sees his big sister. The person he looked up to most in the world, who had loved him and protected him more than their parents ever did. The person he tries to be like for Aria. And he sees that strong, unbreakable person with eyes that carry incredible grief, sorrow, and he feels...

Love, hate. Anger, compassion. Punishment, forgiveness. Longing, pain.

He wants to celebrate this moment so badly, but a cruel, loud part of him thinks about how securely he and Aria had carved out a place for themselves here and how a third would change everything. One who didn’t want them in the first place. How did she find us?

Zander starts unconsciously pacing, trying to cope. Back and forth, back and forth, years of buried emotion rising to the surface.

Back and forth, back and forth.

Mercy, justice.

:::::

Aria paces back and forth in the Atwoods’ living room with relentless repetition. Several of them had tried to get her to sit down, or drink some water or tea or warm milk or something equally ridiculous, and generally calm down. She’s not going to be calm from someone making her sit down, she’ll be calm when she can see her brother and hug him to within an inch of his life. Not every inch, just most.

They’d all heard Slate’s call for help, but only Aria had heard Zander’s subtler howl of pain because they’re family. She wanted to rush out there herself, but she’d been at the Atwoods’ with Sage and the rest of them because Zander didn’t want to leave her alone before school while he went out with a search party. So Alpha Atwood and Asher had restrained her and told her they were sending out some of their most capable wolves, Asher being one of them. He was allowed to go help his older brother, but Aria couldn’t hers. She tried not to pout about that.

By now, Asher has been gone maybe five minutes before all kinds of wolves come banging on the front door. The Alpha was waiting by the door, having heard a horde of trampling feet come right up to his house. He throws open the door, and Jared Olsen and Kimberly Everett come tumbling in first, followed so closely by Asher that he almost bowls them over. Two other members of the pack who had gone out with Asher wait just outside the door. Aria is on her feet in seconds, because why would the backup party be back so soon and weren’t Jared and Kimberly out with Zander? Aria thinks that’s what Zander said, but she was so tired when he shoved her in the car with her things and dropped her off at the Alpha’s house

“Where’s my brother?” she demands.

Jared and Kimberly glance at each other before Kim turns back to Aria. “Zander’s fine, everything worked out okay. No one was hurt past the point of healing.”

Asher jumps in to double down. “That’s right. Slate’s with Zander right now and he says they’re all okay.”

“So why isn’t he here?” Aria tries not to sound either desperate or angry, though she feels a little of both.

Jared touches Kimberly’s arm and avoids Aria’s eyes in favor of facing the Alpha, who has thus far observed and let the interaction play out. “There was an attack.” Aria gasps, but Jared speaks over her. “But we handled it, it was fine. There was something...well Slate told us we should come straight here and that you’d uh, ‘fill in the blanks’, I think he said. He told us to tell any backup responders to stand down.”

Alpha Atwood nods and squeezes Jared’s shoulder. “Okay, you’ve done very well. Help yourself to some water in the kitchen, cool down, and head into the office and write up a report, okay? I’ll be there in a little bit.” Jared and Kimberly nod and seem to relax a little. They do as they’re told. Alpha kindly addresses the wolves waiting outside the door next. “You’ve done very well, as well. I can’t thank you enough for your promptness in responding to the call for aid.”

Aria thinks she can see Mrs. Kim nod and dip her head slightly in respect. “Of course. The four of them out there are family to us too. We’ll always respond to a call for help.”

Alpha Atwood smiles and shakes his head as though he’s pleased and still somewhat baffled that he can inspire such loyalty and respect from these great people. He shakes Mrs. Kim’s hand and squeezes her shoulder as well. “Thank you.” He raises a hand to the others that Aria can’t see. “My thanks goes out to all of you. Now head home, get some rest if you can, my love goes out to you all.”

Alpha finally closes the door behind them after practically years of waiting and Aria’s nearly vibrating in need of answers. His lips quirk up into a smile at Aria’s antics. “Slate has just checked in with me as well, Aria. He says he and Zander are still out there only because something important and time sensitive has come up.”

Aria’s really trying not to be a brat, but she can’t help but clench her jaw and ask petulantly. “So you’re keeping more secrets?” Alpha grimaces as if he knows exactly how she caught on to the rest of it, and Asher just sighs. “Yeah, that’s right, I know you’re hiding something. Was Zander in on it the whole time? Was he lying to me too?”

Asher shakes his head vigorously and leads Aria to the couch and sits beside her. “No, no, no. Aria, what we have to tell you...well, I promise Zander had nothing to do with it either. We were actually planning to tell you in just a couple days, but it seems like it might come out sooner than later.”

Aria can feel her face screw up. “So what is it? Is that what Slate is telling Zander right now? Why am I not out there too?” She rushes to add, “I can handle it, whatever it is.”

Alpha Atwood sits across from Aria and gets her attention. “We know you can, Aria. I’m very sorry this has gone on so long, but you have to understand, sweet girl,” his eyes soften and Aria feels some tension go out of her--things like that always mean so much more coming from an Alpha, this Alpha, “this is bigger than just you or just me.”

Aria leans back in her seat and exhales slowly. “You mean like with the rogues and stuff?”

Asher and Alpha Atwood exchange glances. The Alpha says, “Not...exactly. Tell you what,” he says, standing, “why don’t you and I cook up some banana pancakes and let Asher work something out with Slate so we can get you some answers today. How does that sound?”

Aria blinks, but stands. “Today? Like, Monday today? What about school?”

Alpha laughs and pats her shoulder twice as he leads her to the kitchen. “Today, today. And I think this news warrants a solid day off.”

As they walk into the kitchen, Aria asks slowly, “Good news or bad news?”

Alpha sighs and kisses her hair before putting on his ridiculous apron. “Good news, Aria. I promise. It might not feel like it sometimes, but it is definitely good news.”

:::::

He’s right there, standing in front of her. He was almost dead, the rogue nearly killed him--he almost died--but she was there like she always promised, except she broke that promise, has been breaking it for three years and...and now…she wants to run, she flattens her ears, she...

Gray is...she can...she can’t...she wants. She loves...

She loves.

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