Before the Fall

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Chapter 24

5 Years Ago, Northern Washington Wilderness…

“I heard there’s a man up north, a doctor who has performed surgeries on gunshot victims.”

He hears the woman whispering to someone across camp and whips his head in that direction. “Daddy, what’s--”

“Hush, David, Daddy’s listening for something.”

He misses the content of the response, only that it’s Nina the woman is talking to. The woman is speaking again, he thinks it’s Diana, Nina’s good friend who’s still in the pack, hasn’t been exiled like the rest of them.

“I don’t know his name, but--” the voice cuts off with distress and continues weakly, “you know I’m not supposed to be talking to you, Nina.”

“Wait, wait! Diana, you have to know something more, can’t you tell me anything else? We’d almost stopped looking--just focusing on those stupid rogues--a name? A location?” Nina’s voice is desperate.

“Daddy,” David complains.

Hush, David.”

“I’m sorry, I’ve shared all I know, except--” Diana cuts herself off. “Oh, oh Nina, Sean is calling, I have to go before he finds out I was here.”

“Diana, please.”

“Okay, okay,” Diana says in a rush. Her next words are so quiet they almost can’t be heard. “From what I hear, this doctor might be able to help your husband too.”

Nina gasps. “You mean…”

“Yes, Nina, there’s still hope.”

“Daddy, why are you smiling like that?”

He reaches out for his son and finds his head. He presses a kiss to the boy’s hair and says, “I’m happy, Davie.”

“Dad, don’t call me Davie, I’m not a kid anymore. Can you come--?”

“Sorry David, I’m going to have a picnic with Evie, now. Maybe tomorrow, okay?”

“...okay.”

:::::

Present Day, Atwood Territory...

Zander watches the three oldest Atwoods walk away and only then realizes what just happened. “Huh,” he mutters to himself. “So that’s a judge and jury.”

When Grace fails to effectively smother a small laugh is when Zander realizes he’s said it audibly. The sound catches him off guard. Grace was always...well, not solemn. She could never be described as a solemn person, actually quite animated with the right crowd. But it always did seem like she held herself back most times. Like every expression she made, every sound that came out of her body, was measured. Whether that was to maintain a sense of control or fear of eliciting the wrong outcome, or something altogether different, Zander isn’t sure. But it’s nice to be surprised by her laughter now.

Aria elbows him. “Huh?”

Zander shakes himself back to the present. He imagines he’s going to be doing a lot of bouncing from past to present shortly. “It’s just something Forrest told me their family does sometimes. For themselves and for pack relations. Forrest calls it being ‘judge and jury’d’. Seems like Sara was here as Grace’s representative and Asher was here for us.”

“And Slate was judge,” Aria muses with a small sound of amusement.

Zander nods and elbows her back for good measure. Aria seems to think of something and turns to face Grace with narrowed eyes. Zander shifts his posture to get between them if he needs to. He knows Grace would never do anything physical and he thinks it’s unlikely Aria will either, but she’s a moody teenager and loves to surprise people. “How do you know them, anyway?” she asks with no small amount of suspicion.

Grace bites her lip and sighs. Zander wants to pinch his nose, because if she already thinks they’re not going to like what she has to say this soon, then this exchange is going to be very exhausting. And possibly bloody.

“I,” she clears her throat, “helped them out with a rogue a little while ago.”

Zander senses that’s not the whole story. Aria seems suspicious as well. “What do you mean helped?”

Zander wants to ask if she knows anything about the unusual rogue activity in the area recently, but there are other things to cover first.

“A little while ago, I was in this forest while Sara, Slate, and Asher were out patrolling. Sage had run away from home to find them and...then the rogues attacked.”

“So you helped them fight them off?” Aria digs further.

Grace nods.

Aria accepts this. She takes a step closer for her next question. “How did you find us, then?”

At this, Grace actually closes her eyes and winces, so Zander makes an executive decision and grabs both of their arms and says firmly, “Alright, let’s sit down and get this over with.”

He leads them to a more plush plot of grass and crosses his legs. The three of them sit in a triangle, Aria and Zander’s knees touching familiarly and Grace just out of reach. Zander eyes the distance, but when he looks up and meets grayscale eyes, he leans back with an inhale and realizes just how determinedly he’s been avoiding her gaze. The two halves of him are tearing at the seams. He wants so badly to just forgive her. But he also can’t forget the years of anger and bitterness and sadness. If he doesn’t look at her eyes, she can still be the Grace from before. Like she was just off at college for a couple weeks instead of having deserted them for three years.

He decides it’s safe to leave the distance as it is.

“I think…” Grace’s voice startles Zander. She’d been so timid when she first burst onto the scene, he wasn’t sure if she was going to say more than two words. It seems like she’s getting some feet under her. He thinks it was probably good for the Atwoods to reaffirm her place in the pack a number of times. Zander wonders how exactly they had gotten so close in so short of a time. But then again, Zander has no idea if Grace arrived here yesterday or a year ago and was just hiding from them. He’s quite ready for the blanks to be filled.

“I think,” Grace starts again, “I should tell some of my story first.”

Aria rolls her eyes, but it’s starting to seem less flamingly furious and more civil burning anger. Zander supposes it’s improvement. Grace turns her face to Zander, but he just can’t look at her eyes. He nods and says to her chin, “Please.”

Grace swallows. “After I...I...well once I was alone--”

“You left, Gray. You abandoned us. You didn’t just ‘become alone’ or whatever BS you were feeding yourself,” Aria chimes in hotly.

“Grace,” Zander has to say through clenched teeth. He wants to be the mediator, but now that it’s just the three of them, the chasm between them is so glaringly obvious, and if Grace is going to keep dodging…

“Okay, yes. I’m so sorry, I…” Grace rolls her lips in for a moment while her chest rises and falls shakily for a moment. She looks between the two of them bravely. “I am so sorry, Aria, Alexander. I...I did what I promised I would never do. I abandoned you,” she inhales sharply on the admission, but Zander is grateful she found a voice for the truth. He really thought she might continue to obfuscate. He feels cruel satisfaction at the fact that it looks like the words taste like broken glass in her mouth--it’s validation. The last three years meant something to her too.

“You...you really did,” Zander stumbles out, choking on the bits of vulnerability he lets through. Grace has to know how much it hurt both of them. “I had to tell everyone I was emancipated and had custody of Aria already. I was sixteen, Grace. Sixteen and you left me and an eleven-year-old alone in an apartment where you knew we would be alone and overlooked.”

“I know. I know I did. I had--”

Aria inhales sharply. “Don’t you dare say you had to.”

Grace’s face crumples for a fraction of a second before it’s carefully rearranged to hide any emotion. “I thought I did, though, Aria.”

“Why? What could possibly have made you think I wanted to be abandoned by my sister right after both my parents just died so brutally, so suddenly? What did I do, what did I say wrong?”

“You don’t understand--”

“I don’t understand?” Aria’s face is starting to get red. “Are you kidding me? You left us, Gray. You left me. You left me. You said you’d protect me, you said you would never leave. Why would you promise that if you knew...If you…why…”

And then Aria is wrapped up in Grace’s arms where she breaks down almost further than Zander has ever seen her. Grace takes Aria in her lap, though they’re only a few inches apart in height, and Grace squeezes an arm around her waist and cradles Aria’s head in the other. She holds Aria the way she always held them. It cracks something in Zander’s heart because it humanizes her. Seeing her with Aria like this makes him remember all the times she held him the same way, all the times she protected and cared for him when it seemed like no one else did. It’s almost painful to see the way she cradles Aria’s head like he always tried to do with her, and he has to sniff back some tears of his own. He really missed his big sister. The woman who abandoned them, that’s who Zander hates. If only one thing comes out of today, he hopes it’s that a bridge starts to grow between those two people so that Zander can stop carrying around the one thousand pound bag of ugly anger.

He tries to hide his emotion, but of course Grace sees him hiding, because Grace has always seen him. She tugs on his hand until he puts his arms around both of them and Grace takes one of her hands from Aria to brush back Zander’s hair and hold his head to her temple. Zander has never felt more like a child. He feels like he should feel ashamed, breaking down like this, but his mind is so turned around that he can’t bother to care. He just revels in the familiarity of this hold.

The sounds of the forest are drowned out by Aria’s loud sobbing and Zander’s quieter tears for a long while until Grace, surprisingly, is actually the one to pull back. She removes her arms and uses them to hold her siblings away from her just enough that she can look both of them in the eye.

“Aria, Alexander.” Zander almost wants to burst into tears again, because Grace was the only person who ever called him Alexander. “I have done so wrong by both of you and I am so sorry. I will regret how I hurt you until I die.” She makes eye contact with each of them. “Will you let me tell you why I did those things?”

Zander roughly wipes his eyes with a sleeve and separates himself from his sisters a little. He needs some space to collect himself. Aria stays close to Grace, curls into her side. Zander thinks Aria has probably never felt more like a child either.

“Okay,” Aria, hiccups.

“Please,” Zander says slowly.

Grace nods. “Okay.”

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