Before the Fall

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Chapter 22

8 Years Ago, Northern Washington Wilderness…

He seethes as he sits with his hands twined tightly together in his lap, his sightless eyes open to the darkness. His circadian rhythm is thrashed since he can’t tell when it’s day or night anymore. He curses the people--person--who have put him in this position. He did this to him--a child did this to him. A stupid, reckless kid resigned him to life as a creature with advanced hearing and smell and speed and healing and darkness.

Only darkness.

Always darkness.

“Hey. Sweets. Out of the way, for a moment,” his wife says shortly.

He growls at her menacingly, but she seems to have gotten used to his moods. He didn’t used to be this way. He was...he had potential. He had plans, goals, purpose. Now he has darkness and a bitter wife and children who need help he can’t give.

He stands and carefully walks four steps to the right, a step away from where the opening of their tent should be. Only, two steps in, his foot catches on something and he falls humiliatingly to the dirt floor.

Reeves.” He can almost feel the steam leaking out of his ears. He hisses through clenched teeth, “Am I correct in assuming you have left your belongings in my area again?” Since he was exiled, he rules ruthlessly over his small leftover possessions, and this plot of ground is his.

“Um, yes,” Spineless Dirk Reeves’ voice comes from somewhere in front of him. By the fire with his wife, probably. Reeves’ only value is his blind loyalty, otherwise he would have been discarded long ago. “My boots, sir. I’m so sorry.”

He clenches his fists tightly by his side, trying to keep his claws in so he doesn’t gouge himself again. Crisply, he says, “Of course you are. Now remove these boots before I remove your feet.”

“Of course.” The man scurries closer and makes a racket trying to round up his shoes. It irritates his ears, ever so sensitive now. He refrains from strangling him only for the fear that if he doesn’t keep his remaining men close, he will become a mindless rogue. He used to abhor those creatures. As he grew older, he saw some benefits in them, had just barely begun perfecting his method before his face was shredded.

Now their useless scrabbling paws sound like nice little soldiers wrapped in easily manipulated, bloodthirsty packages. Maybe he does still have purpose, after all.

:::::

Present Day, Atwood Territory...

Ash, it’s time, Slate’s voice comes through Asher’s mind.

He tries not to let his face betray any emotion as he hears Slate’s ever-calm voice echo through his mind. Where do you need me?

Asher hears Slate sigh through the bond. I would like for this to go down at Sara’s, but I think it has to happen right here, right now. Get Aria here. Bring Sara with you. I’ve told dad what’s going on but to stay behind. This cannot appear as the pack taking sides.

I’m on it, Asher sends back with feelings of confidence he’s trying to feel. For not the first time, he thanks heaven for his brother’s cool head.

Thanks. One more thing.

Asher grimaces in anticipation. Anything, he sends nonetheless.

Slate sighs heavily and Asher can picture him covering his eyes for a moment. The gesture is engineered to look like an expression of frustration or impatience, but Asher has always thought its subconscious purpose is to give his brother a fleeting moment of privacy and vulnerability. But it’s there and gone in a flash, like always.

Slate says, This is going to be handled like a conflict resolution meeting. I’m going to need you to be Aria and Zander’s advocate. Sara is Gray’s. I won’t let Gray be a martyr with this and Aria and Zander need a buffer while they acclimate.

Asher now knows why Slate needed his moment of reprieve. Whatever Zander and/or Gray did upon first sight made Slate think this wasn’t going to be the easy reunion they all want it to be.

And you’re the impartial mediator, Asher mumbles in his mind’s voice to his brother. He huffs. Oh, the irony.

:::::

“So why are we going to the forest again?” Aria complains. “Why can’t we do this like, oh, I don’t know, rational beings with opposable thumbs and go somewhere with indoor plumbing?”

Aria knows she’s probably being immature, but honestly this is her holding back. Seriously. If she did what she really wanted to do, she’d be plopped down at home with a chocolate bar demanding for the communion to come to her. Actually, that’s what Aria wants to happen in almost all other scenarios, so really, the world is lucky she’s been compromising for them so long.

It is possible that Aria’s sass game is the only thing that keeps her sane in this world.

Sara sighs and gives her a pinched expression. “Babe, I find you extremely entertaining in all other circumstances--not only because you remind me of myself at your age--but right now I need you to cool it a little bit.”

Aria scoffs. “Okay, fine then. If I’m so much like you, imagine yourself at fourteen, being led around and told what to do with no explanation whatsoever, getting your new sneakers dirty, with your brother who knows where, possibly in danger, and probably going deeper into the forest than you ever have before.”

When Sara side-eyes Aria, she worries she’s exposed too much of her fear. Sure, it’s normal to be afraid if you think your brother is hurt, but to be a werewolf and be afraid of the forest? That’s ridiculous. Maybe a child would be scared, but definitely not a teenager. Aria has no reason to be afraid...except that the fear was instilled into her very young. Conflict between packs occurs most often in the shelter of deep forestry--not an unfamiliar plotline for her childhood. The forest is where wolves are exiled or banished, the forest is where some wolves are...well, where some wolves are taken and never come back. The Atwoods may not operate that way, but in the back of her mind, Aria has always been waiting for her past to circle back and infiltrate the careful happiness she’d cultivated here.

And most notably, the forest is where Aria lost her parents.

Sara’s hearty thump on her back brings her back to the present. She gives Aria a knowing look, but lets it go. What she says instead is, “Yeah, and I would be equally annoyed at my fourteen-year-old self.”

Aria growls and goes to shove Sara, but Asher grabs her by the sleeve and yanks her back into formation between the two of them. “Okay, okay, calm down, it’ll be--”

“Never tell a woman to calm down, Ash. This is why you don’t have a girlfriend,” Sara cuts in with snark softened with a quirk of the lips and a knowing glance between siblings.

Aria’s fearfulness fizzles out until she’s back to her normal teenage bravado. “Yeah, Ash. Never tell me to calm down,” she smirks.

Sara huffs a laugh and shakes her head. “Yeah, nice try, shrimp. Your brother may be a pushover, but that’s not gonna fly here. You remind me of my six-year-old brother with a little too much melodrama. Cool it with the attitude.” With one last stern look, Sara effectively shuts down the conversation.

Aria kicks a rock and watches it smack into a tree while she tries not to grumble under her breath. She wasn’t really trying to be annoying. She just wanted someone to pay attention to her and treat her like an equal. It’s not offensive coming from Sara, who Aria will never admit to idolizing, but it used to be that the “tough love” approach just made her put up her dukes even further--a fear and embarrassment reaction. Her parents never really learned that lesson. The only thing that really saved a young Aria from their full wrath was Gray and Zander. Sometimes when she can’t fall asleep at night, Aria reruns memories from her childhood and analyzes them with her more mature brain. She never realized how often she had her head in the clouds until she was put out on her own with only Zander, who was only slightly less clueless than her. For a long time when she reflected on those memories, she marvelled at how easy her parents made it on her. “Baby of the family” syndrome, she thinks.

Then...she grew older and started to recognize a pattern. Whenever her dad’s disappointed lectures turned just a touch too spiteful and tears started to gather in sensitive Aria’s eyes, Gray appeared with a clumsy spell and spilled a drink on the nice carpet. Or she revealed that she’d gotten “detention” last week and hadn’t told him, though Teenage Aria now looks back and finds that incredibly unlikely. Sometimes Zander would do it, too. He’d come through the door whining about not having a bike as cool as the neighbor’s or a teacher that was supposedly biased against him.

It wasn’t always bad things, though. The veil of youthful oblivion was lifted from her earlier and easier upon the redirection of negative attention than it was upon the conversion to redirecting negative attention to positive attention. Or rather, “positive attention”, quotes intended. Zander, at only five years older than Aria wasn’t old enough or clever enough to be really savvy with his misdirection, so sometimes Dad would just sigh, roll his eyes, and send Aria off to her room to pout when Zander got between them, as if the whole thing hadn’t been worth his trouble. Gray, though, was nine years Aria’s senior and always a cunning girl. As the years progressed, it became easier for Grace to distract their parents from Zander and Aria by pleasing them. She’d look over pages of medical journals and theorize with their father. She’d offer to spend time with him at the clinic, shadowing him. She’d tell their mom to go back to bed, that she’d help Zander with his homework and fix Aria’s dinner while their dad stayed late at work researching something or other.

At the time, Aria thought Gray was just a suck up. Her smiles looked eager and real. Now Aria sees anxiety and resignation in their stead. Gray never liked medicine like their father. She didn’t revel in giving their mother more excuses to be absent. But she did it anyway. When Zander told Aria about Gray’s moon gift and how it really worked, it fit even more puzzle pieces together. It seems that Gray learned very early how to suffer well.

The cruel irony is that a small, young part of Aria that she doesn’t like to look at hopes she’s suffering now.

Aria’s coming. Gray can smell her now, can hear her footsteps like thunder on the forest floor. She equally looks forward to and dreads the moments ahead. Seeing her little sister alive and well will be like drinking cool water after chasing mirages every night in her dreams for three years. Just the same, seeing her little sister righteously angry and hateful will kill any last vestiges of happy fantasies she’d envisioned for herself and her two siblings.

Still, Gray owes it to both of them to be here and take the weight of whatever burden they need to shed. If she needs to be a punching bag, she’ll let them. If they need to hurt her, she’ll bare her throat to it.

And the overshadowing feeling, what will always be the largest feeling in regards to her siblings is oh, how dearly she loves…

Aria can hear three other people breathing just up ahead, but can’t quite see them through the foliage. Asher and Sara stop, the former curiously putting an arm in front of Aria to halt her steps.

He unzips the backpack Sara had given him when they met up and comes up with what looks like a change of clothes for two males and a female. Presumably one is for her brother and one for Slate, who Aria has been informed has been waiting with Zander. The remaining set of clothes and breathing pattern remain a mystery.

Asher says in a normal voice that will travel to the waiting convoy only because of advanced werewolf senses. “Zander, do you want to meet Aria here for a moment?”

Silence reigns for a long moment.

“No,” Zander says at last. His voice sounds...weird. Choked. “She’ll need to see it with her own eyes to believe it anyway.”

Asher exhales deeply and starts forward, letting Aria and Sara have a last moment. Sara squeezes Aria’s shoulder and seems unsure what sentiment to impart. She tucks a lock of hair around the younger girl’s ear and says softly. “This person you’re about to see is very special to me and I hope you can remember how special she is to you too. This is a second chance, squirt. Don’t give it up.”

Sara pats her on the back twice and then uses the same hand to guide her forward after Asher. Aria’s brows stay furrowed as she stares at the forest floor while they walk. What in the world is she about to walk into?

Asher holds up a branch for them to walk under and the sight that greets Aria just confuses her further for long moments. Slate is standing in a T-shirt and jeans, looking as unruffled as ever, except for the bare feet. Zander’s tugging on a slightly-too-big geeky tee that Aria recognizes as one of Jason’s. The third party waiting for them is a massive wolf. The sight is relatively startling as Aria flips through images in her mind, trying to place which pack member this could be. Surely they wouldn’t bring Aria to any sort of meeting with another pack’s representative. Plus, this wolf looks...weak. Not in stature, but in attitude. She’s just laying there with her head down. Didn’t even lift her head for the three unfamiliar werewolves who just walked into this bizarre Mexican-standoff-looking amalgamation of people. Aria kind of pities her.

Aria has been around werewolves her entire life, so though she doesn’t have one-hundred percent control over her own full wolf form, she recognizes the features as female. Since no one else is saying anything, she starts hesitantly, “Is...she okay? Who is this?”

Everyone is silent except Zander, who makes a small sound that Aria can’t quite interpret. She looks at him and sees wide, red rimmed eyes. Aria takes a small step back and wraps her arms around herself. She hasn’t seen her brother look like that in a long time. She whispers, “What? Zander, what is this?”

He comes to stand beside her and turns her to face the wolf head on. He shakes her shoulders a little. “Look, Aria. Look.”

So Aria does. If she tilts her head sideways, sure, maybe the wolf looks a little familiar. It...actually has red-auburn fur, kind of like she does when she can manage the full transformation, but lots of wolves are red heads. Or this in-between shade. Not wanting to look or sound stupid, she looks up at Zander, and ventures quietly, hesitantly, “Um, she has fur similar to mine?”

When Zander meets her gaze, it’s with disappointment, and Aria bristles at the uncommon sight. She is one-hundred-and-one percent done with this ambiguous crap. Her voice is snappy when she says, “Zander, you just dragged me out into the forest and forced me into this weird, awkward situation and have barely said three words. What the heck is going on?”

Zander opens his mouth, but it’s Sara who interrupts the tense moment with an exaggerated throat clearing. “Ahem, perhaps it would be helpful if our wolf would face the music. Love you, girl, but this is going to happen whether you want it to or not. Can’t run away now.”

Asher groans and looks to the sky and Slate rolls his eyes. Aria can’t believe how flippant they’re being when Zander looks so wrecked. It soon becomes very clear why Zander looks the way he does, but it will take a while for the implications of the non-reactions of the Atwoods to register.

The wolf raises her head and her eyes get stuck on the air just above Aria’s head for a long moment before they drag down to meet Aria’s.

Aria can only gape for a moment, and her hand comes to her mouth involuntarily. Zander finds his voice. “It’s Grace, Ari.”

Aria’s throat becomes unstuck and a word tumbles out without her permission. “Gray?”

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