Before the Fall

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Chapter 23

6 Years Ago, Northern Washington Wilderness…

“Love,” his wife says hesitantly. “You really think we’ll be able to find her help?”

He tightens his arms around his sweet wife. In the privacy of their tent while all the others are sleeping and the children--the younger one a sweet, gentle, human, and nearly lame and the older a strong, protective, werewolf--are snoring just beyond the flap of canvas separating the family, he feels that old love and tenderness again. “Nina, my love, we have to believe it. There has to be another specialist somewhere we haven’t tried yet, some other physical therapist. We have to keep trying.”

“You don’t think,” Nina sniffles subtly, “you don’t think we’re just getting their hopes up for nothing?”

He reaches up to pet her hair. Quietly, he reassures her, “Not if we can make it true.”

“How can you be so sure? It’s been so long...”

“She’s human, love, there are so many more resources for her. We press forward, like we always do, for both of us.”

Nina stiffens in his arms. He clenches his jaw and tries to bury the old familiar anger. “I understand Evie, but if you haven’t healed in three years, maybe it’s time--”

“Hush,” he says harsher than he wants to and tries to loosen his grip so it’s not so crushing on Nina’s human bones. “You didn’t grow up around werewolves, you don’t know. This is unnatural. There has to be a way to reverse it.”

When she stays silent, he kisses her hair and murmurs gently, “We press forward like we always do.”

:::::

Present Day, Atwood Territory...

Gray waits years before recognition flickers in Aria’s pretty chocolate eyes. She gasps, “Gray?”

A thousand memories of Aria saying her name crash into Gray’s conscious mind. Most notably the first time she finally looked at Gray and came out with a word that wasn’t just a series of sounds they came to associate with her. “Gway?” her little mouth had said.

Then later when she had a few more teeth, “Gwathe?”

A young, belligerent Alexander had rolled his eyes and advised with all of his eight-year-old wisdom, “Let’s just stick with Gray, ’kay?”

And so rarely in Aria’s lifetime had Aria called her Grace, and it seems that the principle holds true all these years later. Gray wonders how Aria would feel knowing she’s been using Aria’s nickname for her as her anonymous moniker, whether it would warm her or hurt her.

Sara gives Asher a shove towards Gray. He gives his sister a dirty look, but comes and holds out Gray’s change of clothes anyway. She expects him to drop them at her feet, but instead he continues to hold them out with an expectant look. Gray sighs and heaves her big body off the ground and stretches out of her fur and into her skin. Like watching a train wreck, Gray can’t look away from her siblings while she does it. Alexander seems to not be breathing at all, while Aria’s breaths come heavy.

Having grown up around shapeshifters, she’s well comfortable with human and wolf bodies alike so it’s no shame to grow into her athletic 5’8” frame completely uncovered until she gratefully unburdens Asher of his load and dons a top and shorts from her wardrobe at Sara’s house. Before she has a moment longer to drown in her thoughts, Alexander appears in front of her and scans her face once, twice, three times, drinking her in as Gray had been doing to him with the unfair advantage of being a wolf. Gray notices with a painful twinge that his eyes skip past hers with every pass, like a glitch.

So she closes them. It seems to give Alexander the confidence to get closer, because it only takes moments before he takes her head in his hands and twists ever so slightly this way and that. He picks up a lock of her hair and seems to feel it between his fingertips for a moment.

Then his hands leave her for long moments, enough that she can’t stand to keep her eyes closed any longer. Her eyes find his immediately and she sees war in his eyes for long moments until his eyes skitter away from hers. Gray closes her eyes only for a long blink and a deep sigh this time, but it seems that Alexander likes the anonymity of not being seen. She wonders a little bit if this is what Slate feels like sometimes, the way people feel his gaze so heavily and often try to dodge it when they worry he’ll see too much. Alexander takes advantage of Gray’s momentary blindness and she suddenly feels herself cocooned in his arms.

She tenses and resists for a moment, having been caught off guard. Alexander recoils slightly at her sudden stiffness, each one so tentative with the other, but Gray doesn’t let him go far. She steps closer to him and wraps her arms tightly around his waist. He’s the first person she’s let so close in three years and she never realized how painful that was. Before, she was always touching people. Hugs, squeezes of shoulders, tucks of hair, kisses on cheeks, everything. It started when she was young only because she did it to share her gift as much and as widely as she could. Back then touch was still somewhat unfamiliar because her parents never offered her much in the way of physical affection. It took a while to get used to, but once she did, it became a craving. She thought her need for tactility had been beat out of her in her near feral state of solitude, but from her brother at least, it’s like soothing a pain so deep and constant that you got used to simply because you couldn’t remember not feeling it anymore.

Gray squeezes him tighter when she feels him shaking, until he starts hushing her and rocking them gently from side to side and she realizes it is her falling apart. This isn’t supposed to happen. She’s supposed to be the strength, she’s supposed to have the comforting embrace, the healing embrace. Instead, in a move she’s almost certain he learned from her, Alexander lifts a hand from her back and tucks her head close to his chest. The gesture is meaningful for so many reasons, some he probably won’t even realize. Gray had always hugged her siblings like that, with a tight arm around their shoulders or waist and a soft hand against the backs of their heads. There was exactly one person whose touch she never once associated with pain, and that was the woman she always secretly wished had been her mother, or grandmother. Gray just wanted to belong to her.

Gray’s father was a well renowned doctor in the werewolf sphere as it existed in Canada. He took much pride in being the smartest, most well-read, most practiced physician in the country. He liked to share his knowledge with those he deemed worthy of his attention and knowledge--primarily werewolves with wealth or high education, especially in the medical field. Never would he travel outside of Canada, nor would he reveal his secrets beyond national boundaries. He was extremely elitist.

He was indifferent to most who didn’t fit his exact specifications, dismissed them out of hand, except for two groups of people: those who questioned him, and those who practiced non-western medicines. The woman who treated Gray like her own fell into both categories. Of course, she’d chuckle to Gray, she didn’t actually refute any of her father’s findings, he was really quite intelligent, but it was the principle of the thing. She was also a DO who primarily practiced in non-traditional, holistic methods.

Gray had always been quite in touch with her natural side, the side that came from predatory descension, and found holistic practices fascinating. Her father abhorred it. It was Gray’s singular act of rebellion. She learned much from her father and tore through copious readings from traditional MDs for one reason or another--actually was on a pre-med track before she left--but her passion was always simply in healing. She wanted to learn all kinds of methods of prevention and treatment.

So she’d spend almost every weekend when she wasn’t needed at home at Miss Audra’s home absorbing everything she could in the short time she had available. Miss Audra had been the greatest mentor Gray could have dreamed of. Septuagenarian that she was, she was spry, keen, clever, and endlessly affectionate. And she’d always hug Gray with a tight arm around her back and a gentle hand curling behind her head and tucking her close to her bosom, even when Gray grew taller than Miss Audra’s curling spine let her stand.

So Gray always hugged her siblings the same. And now...now Alexander was doing for her what she’d always worked so hard to do for him: be the strength.

Though still shaking, Gray finally pushes away from her brother--only slightly, she still has two hands on his upper arms. With no prior thought or intention, words spill out of her mouth. “Are you...how are you doing? How have you been? Have you been getting good grades in school? How did you get here? Are you okay? Is she okay?” Gray suddenly desperately looks past Alexander to see her little sister standing, looking lost. “Aria--”

Alexander looks back at Aria as well, but cuts Gray off. “We’re okay, Grace. We’re okay. We’ve...managed.” He laughs breathlessly, incredulously. “Are you--”

“How is he supposed to get good grades when he has to take care of me, Gray?” comes a spitting remark from Aria.

Gray blinks slowly and it feels like her feet hit the ground once more. She lets go of Alexander slowly, not really wanting to let him go, but cursing herself for her vulnerability. He shouldn’t feel like he needs to take care of her, he should be free to be angry, to fight, to yell, to argue, to...to leave, if he wants to. If he needs to. Gray can’t put any more responsibility on him than she’s forced him to take for these years without her.

Aria takes several steps forward until she’s just a pace behind their brother. “You...you left us, Gray. How were we supposed to focus on grades, huh? You just…you just…how could you just…?”

Gray feels her face shutting down. Each word fits in her heart like a dagger, but she can’t let it show on her face. If this is the burden Aria and Alex need to unload on her, then she will let them. If they need to yell, she’ll let them yell. If they need to curse and spit, she’ll let them. She doesn’t need them to pity her. She needs them to be selfish like she was. She needs them to not care about her like she didn’t care about them.

Aria’s lips press together and she breathes heavily like she’s holding in a dozen emotions all at once. When she opens her mouth again, she emphasizes her words with a jabbing motion of her finger in the air. “How the--”

“Hey, hey,” Sara appears suddenly in Gray’s peripheral vision, standing at her side. “Hey,” she says again when Aria continues to fume and tries to speak again. Sara puts a hand on Gray’s shoulder with a surprising gentleness, considering how fierce her face is, at the moment. “Remember what I said before, Aria? This person is special to me and she’s special to you.”

“This...this person is not--”

Aria,” Alexander says with a force that indicates simultaneous bond communication.

This makes her halt whatever vitriol she was about to spew. She turns to him and Gray starts to see a few cracks in her steely demeanor. Her voice is almost imperceptibly uneven when she says, “What?

Alex inhales and looks at Gray before turning back to Aria. His face was unreadable when he looked at Gray, but strong once again with Aria. What he finally says is, “Listen to Sara.”

When his eyes stray back to Gray, she understands the subtext. He doesn’t want this to be an antagonistic interchange, but he has to stand by Aria. If there are lines drawn, he’s prepared to make the hard decision. Much as it hurts, Gray is proud of him for this.

Sara squeezes Gray’s shoulder again. “Aria, this situation is peculiar for a number of reasons. We want to let the three of you talk it out, and you need to. But we have to establish a couple things first, okay?”

Sara asks for the confirmation, but really leaves no room for anything but an affirmative answer. Aria purses her lips and looks away, but nods anyway.

“Alright, okay. Gray is here in our territory and no matter what you say or don’t say, she is welcome here if she wants to stay.” Her eye twitches and her voice goes tight when she says that. “And I will not let you attack--”

“Sara,” Gray murmurs.

“I will not let you attack her,” Sara bulldozes onward and gives Gray a pointed look. “She does not deserve that.”

Aria opens her mouth, but snaps it shut at the narrowing of Sara’s eyes. “No matter what she did, no one deserves to be personally attacked before you’ve heard their side of the story--and even after. We were all taught to use our words in grade school, yeah? We don’t regress to snotty spoiled toddlers when--”

Sara,” Slate makes his presence known sternly, “take it down a notch.”

Sara takes a deep breath and starts again slower. “Okay, okay, you’re right. I’m sorry, girlie, I’ve been tough on you today, but it’s because I love you and want the best for you. Look, bottom line, there’s a lot of love in this room,” no one dares comment that they’re actually in the outdoors and not in a room, “and there’s also a lot of hurt in this room, but it is possible to walk out of here feeling positive. Not necessarily healed, but we don’t have to leave feeling like bridges are burned when I know nobody wants that.”

Aria’s jaw clenches when Sara looks at her, but she gives a jerky nod. The simple, begrudging movement gives Gray a glimmer of hope. Maybe...maybe there’s potential there. Maybe there’s healing to be had, instead of just painful, bitter coexistence. Gray would happily go back to her forested den and emerge only for Sara if that’s what Aria desired. She’d do anything for that beautiful, spunky, warm, venomous girl.

Asher steps forward and enters the little grouping that had collected. He noticeably attempts to form the group into a circle instead of two sides facing each other, and Sara shifts to assist in the effort. “But,” he adds, “everyone deserves to be heard and your feelings are valid. Just remember being heard is dependent upon your ability to express yourself calmly and clearly.”

Aria’s jaw works, and she finally meets Asher’s eyes for a moment before gesturing to his siblings with a jerk of her head. “Okay sure, whatever. Why are you here? This is my sister.”

Slate doesn’t move from his position slightly outside the circle, but pins Aria with his deep, intense gaze just as easily. She visibly gulps. “You’re right.” Aria’s jaw slackens a little before she snaps it shut again, but she can’t hide the little crease between her brows that speak to her intimidated state. Slate continues. “This isn’t a matter for the pack to discuss. This isn’t a matter for the Atwoods to discuss. But like Sara said, Gray is special to us.” His eyes flick to Gray as he says it, and the calm in his voice and eyes anchors Gray.

“The two of you are special too,” Slate continues with his gaze pinned back on Gray’s sister. “We’re here for as long as we need to be to be confident that this meeting won’t turn volatile and that you each know we stand by you both.”

“How can you stand by both of us if we’re...on opposite sides?” Aria bravely asks.

Slate tilts his head. Succinctly, he poses, “Are you?”

Aria pushes her mouth to one side and stares at the ground. She wants to say yes, Gray can see it. What Gray’s not sure about is whether Aria wants to say it just to be contrary or if she really believes it.

“Do you understand that your sister,” Aria and Gray both flinch at the word for different reasons, but Slate is unperturbed, “has a place here as much as you?”

Aria bites her lip and stubbornly avoids his gaze.

“Do you want to have peace in our pack?” Slate continues, pressing.

Aria’s eyes flick up to look at him through her lashes. “Yes.”

“Do you want to be happy?”

She frowns. “Yes.”

“Do you want your brother to be happy?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want to have your loved one back?”

Gray closes her eyes against a potential blow, but evidently Slate intends for it to be a rhetorical question because he continues before she can answer.

“Gray,” he says, catching her attention.

She nods but doesn’t open her eyes.

“Do you understand that you have as much of a place here as your brother and sister?”

Gray opens her eyes and looks from Sara, to Asher, to Slate. “Yes,” she whispers, because she’s starting to believe it.

“Do you want to have peace in our pack?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want to be happy?”

Gray wants to answer that she deserves to suffer, that she’s committed unredeemable sins, that it’s not possible anymore, but...that feels almost melodramatic now. Once she would have admitted to all three without a shred of doubt. Those feelings were real. But either way, she supposes, the true answer is that yes, she wants to be happy, whether or not she has always believed it should be possible. And she is starting to believe.

“Yes.”

“Do you want your sister,” it’s easier to hear this time, “to be happy?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want your brother to be happy?”

“Yes.”

“Do you want your loved ones back?”

Gray exhales on her answer. “Yes.”

Slate nods and turns to Alexander. “Zander, do you want the same?”

Curiously, his lips twitch like they want to smile. “Yes,” he says firmly. For a moment, Gray wonders what Alexander thinks of Slate. If they’re friends, if they’re acquaintances, if Alex thinks he’s a jerk or if he’s nice. She wonders if that opinion would change if he knew they were True Mates.

Slate evidently decides that his point has been made and no more words need to be said. He just lifts his eyebrows calmly at Aria as if to say, Any further objections?

Aria appears more calm than she was, though Gray still wouldn’t describe her as such on the whole. Sara distracts Gray from her study with a squeeze of her hand this time. “Are you okay?” She asks quietly.

Gray closes her eyes and breathes for a moment. Though she’s not necessarily convinced of either the veracity or falsehood of the statement at this moment, she says, “Yes.”

“Do you want me to stay?”

Gray leaves her hanging for a moment while she listens to Asher having a similar conversation with Aria and Alexander. He’s saying, “...anything you need?”

Alexander has an arm around Aria now and he studies her for a moment before addressing Asher. “We’ll be fine,” he says. “Thanks.”

Gray turns back to Sara and affirms her confidence. “No. I’ll...we’ll be okay.”

Sara looks unsure, so Gray clears her mind enough to pull the aches and pains from her body. Sara exhales deeply and the lines on her face relax. Sara smiles at her and whispers, “Thank you. I’m always here for you, Gray.”

Sara gives her last squeeze before backing up to stand by Slate. Asher and Alexander exchange a few more words before he, too, takes a place next to his siblings. Slate, hands classically shoved into his pockets, takes a moment to spare one last thought. “If any of you,” his gaze swings between all three siblings, “need anything, howl. We’ll be out of listening distance, but we’ll hear a call for help. Our priority is keeping our friends and family safe. You all have a home here. The outcome of this conversation doesn’t change that. Alright?”

“Yeah, thank you.” Alex reaches out a hand to shake Slate’s, and Gray actually dredges up some amusement when he gulps as Slate reaches out and maintains eye contact. The reactions this man elicits are endlessly fascinating.

Aria meets Slate’s eyes for only a brief moment and nods, mumbling, “Thanks.”

Slate nods at her and his eyes slide to meet Gray’s. In a moment of impulsivity, Gray reaches out a hand, palm out. His mouth twitches almost imperceptibly, but his eyes twinkle with mirth. He reaches out a hand and matches hers, palm to palm, before dropping it and walking back to where they came from, a hand on the back of each of his siblings’ necks as they walk side by side.

And then there were three.

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