Before the Fall

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Chapter 26

Present Day, Atwood Territory…

Aria gapes at Gray with a hand still clutched in the older’s shirt. Alexander looks in the distance and flickers his eyes at nothing, mouthing unspoken words. Gray bites her lips hard enough to draw blood, trying to maintain composure in the silence.

“Why…” Aria starts with horror. “You didn’t tell us that Dad…”

Zander shakes his head with disbelief as well. “Why would you tell us Mom and Dad died in the skirmish? That we had to run because everyone blamed you for not getting to Dad’s clinic soon enough? You could have told us what happened,” he insists, getting more vehement with every word. He shakes his head. “I knew that was such a flimsy lie.”

Gray starts shaking her head even before he finishes. “Alexander, think about it. Our father...he asked an impossible task of me. He would rather sacrifice me than let a half dead woman go because he couldn’t give her up.” She shakes her head again. “I was barely keeping it together myself, Alex. I couldn’t expect you to carry the truth. I...had to do what I did, to him. I could accept that. He wouldn’t have given up. I could even accept that he cared more about someone else’s wife than me, but the fact that he had to have known there was no way I was going to walk out of the room was…”

“What do you mean?” Aria sniffles as Gray trails off with eyes tightly closed.

“It means,” Alexander says slowly, looking at Gray, “that Dad called Grace at school knowing Paisley was going to die and that he wasn’t going to let Grace get away without healing her.” He finally tears his eyes from Gray’s and says lastly to Aria, “Either Grace healed Paisley and died, or Paisley died and Dad killed Grace.”

Though she had to have seen where the story was going, Aria still gasped when Alexander used the work “kill” in reference to their father. And Gray. Their father killing Gray.

“But Dad loved you, Gray, he loved you the most. Everyone knew that,” Aria insists as she shuffles over to put some space between herself and her sister as she processes.

Gray feels a tired, sad smile turn her lips up. “Dad loved the idea of me, Ari. He loved that he had a successor he could mold into the perfect heir. And,” she closes her eyes against the reality, “he may have loved me the most--because of what I was, mind you, it had nothing to do with you two--but he also hated me the most.”

Alexander frowns this time. “What are you talking about? Everyone knew you were his favorite.”

“But I was better than him,” Gray says simply. “I could do what he never would be able to.”

Alexander is quiet as he turns that over in his mind. “And Mom?”

Gray cocks her head.

Alexander clears his throat and clarifies, “Why didn’t you tell us about Mom?”

Aria starts breathing haltingly and Gray reaches out a hand to comfort her, but she jerks away. “Aria,” Gray tries.

“Don’t touch me,” Aria says heavily.

“Aria, we don’t have to--” Alexander backtracks with a wince.

“I know,” Aria says with both hands gesturing. “I know. I just need a minute.”

With that, Aria leaps to her feet and runs out of view but within hearing distance. Gray and Alexander hear her crying and muttering to herself. Gray starts to get up to go after her, But Alexander yanks her back. He shakes his head at Gray. “She needs to be alone.”

Gray’s lips turn down. “Alexander, she needs--”

“Grace,” Alexander tries not to sound bitter, “she’s not eleven anymore. She grieves differently. She’ll be okay in a minute, just let her be.”

“And that’s why I didn’t tell you about Mom,” Grace shoots back, not quite reaching the gentle tone she tried for, because she has too much inner turmoil to regulate her reactions.

Alexander raises his hands in innocence. He swallows his pride. “Okay, okay. I...I’m sorry, Grace.”

“No,” Gray shushes him quickly, “no. Alexander, you shouldn’t apologize to me. You...you’re her rock now.”

Alexander looks in the direction of Aria’s soft muttering and back to Gray. “That’s not what I meant.” Gray goes to open her mouth, but he continues. “And we’re each other’s rocks.”

Gray’s mouth falls shut as she tries and fails to interpret the loaded look her brother is giving her at the moment.

His eyes travel her face. “I meant I’m sorry you had to deal with all that alone.” Then he winces and looks away, putting his head in his hands. “And I’m sorry for this too.”

Gray stares at his bent form for a moment before it clicks. “It’s the eyes,” she whispers.

He peeks at her between his hands for a second before obscuring his view once more and nodding into his hands. “I’m sorry.”

Gray reaches out and rubs a hand up and down his back once. She ignores the way he tenses slightly. “You’ve probably seen them more often today than I have in three years.”

Alexander takes a shuddering breath and looks up, eyes going glassy as he struggles to meet hers. “Why?” He croaks. “I...it’s hard for me to see because I don’t want to remember you leaving us. They’re a reminder that things can never be the same again.”

Gray wants to flinch but refuses to and so works her jaw instead. “I don’t look at them,” she says slowly, “because they remind me of how I got them.”

They go quiet for a moment, each caught in different memories. After a moment, Gray feels brave enough to ask for some reciprocation. She ventures carefully, “Will you tell me how you got here from Wyoming?”

He sighs in relief, presumably from being freed from the choke hold of certain memories. He looks once again to where Aria’s cries are dying down. “It was the best thing that could have happened to us, really.”

Grace half smiles in spite of herself and looks around them, eyes lingering a moment too long in the direction the three Atwoods had taken to get back home. “I can understand why,” she murmurs. She thinks it might be the best thing that happened to her, too.

“In Wyoming...about six months after we got there, things started to go pretty sour,” he continues. “The pack we were in...well, the reason the Alpha didn’t care about most of his pack was because he was too busy trying to stay in power. I guess there had been a years-long power struggle--a war of attrition. And...he lost. For a few months, there was chaos as different people vied for the new position, but eventually word got around and a few packs in the surrounding states stepped in. Things are different here, Gray,” he says. “America...at least from the midwest to the west coast, they have support systems in place. Checks and balances. The Alphas keep in close contact and work together on a lot of things.”

Gray turns this over, though she’d gleaned some of this information throughout her years-long pilgrimage. “So how did you find the Atwoods?”

Alexander shrugs. “A few Alphas offered us places, but we decided we just wanted to get as far away as possible. At first we...worried about how you would find us again,” he avoids her eyes. “We thought you might come back when you heard about what went down. But Miss Audra called us.”

Gray’s eyebrows shoot up. “Miss Audra?” she whispers. She hadn’t dared think that name in years.

Alexander’s mouth quirks up in a wry smile. “Yeah. I guess the old woman had been keeping tabs on us. Seems like she has eyes everywhere. She convinced us you’d find us when the time was right, wherever we were. I guess she was right.”

Gray rolls her lips in, slightly, knowing he’s going to ask how she found them. Fortunately or unfortunately, Gray can’t say, but at that moment, Aria comes ambling back to their area of communion and interrupts the tension. Her throat still sounds tear clogged, but she seems much more in control. “I’m okay,” she says preemptively. “I just needed a minute by myself.”

Aria exhales as she gets settled back next to her siblings and they find themselves back the way they started, only now their knees are touching at every point of the triangle. Gray decides then that as much as she wants to stick her head in the sand, her siblings deserve to know this. She knows mincing of words won’t help, so she waits only one moment to flick her eyes between Aria and Alexander before she starts with, “I wasn’t looking for you.”

She waits for that to blow over. Aria puts a hand to her forehead but seems too numb with emotional exhaustion to produce much more of a reaction. It makes Gray wonder if she should wait to drop this news, but thinks better of it. It would have hurt worse if she kept it from them.

Alexander’s jaw is clenched and the skin by his eyes is tight. It speaks to the idea that maybe he’d been preparing for this blow for a while, sensing its imminence. “Okay,” he says slowly. “So you just happened to be in the area and, what, hide out and help with the new rogue factions now?”

Gray thinks his choice of words is interesting and wonders if he has some similar theories about these “factions”, but that’s an aside. As to why she’s here in the first place, she sees why he would be thinking along these lines, considering she’d told them how she first met the Atwoods and how she rather literally leapt back into Alexander’s life. It’s a pretty broad shot in the dark, but to be fair, the degree of verisimilitude of these events happening in a movie would be lacking. Gray shakes her head. “Not really. When I found the four of them in the forest that first night, I noticed something...off about Sara.”

Aria immediately jumps to the right conclusion. Well, half of it at least. With wide eyes, she asks, “You mean she was sick? She needed to be healed?” She frowns and wonders with a shaking head. “From what?”

“Well,” Gray hedges, “I’ll tell you, but you have to promise to keep it between the three of us.”

Alexander nods immediately, looking like he’s trying not to visibly express his dire curiosity. Aria nods several times and leans in. After all, it’s not every day a werewolf gets sick. Gray can’t help but smile at the ground before she looks up again to meet their eyes. “Sara’s pregnant.”

Gray waits for them to gasp or squeal or something, but when they only react with mild surprise and joy, she realizes Sara may have kept her familial intentions even more secret than she thought. They obviously have no idea how long this journey has been and what a miracle it is. It makes her feel a little guilty, revealing as much as she is, but this is her family. She can’t keep any more secrets from them. “Um, so, yes. She’s pregnant. But it’s a risky pregnancy, and I need to be here to siphon off her major symptoms so the baby can be carried full term.”

At this, Aria slumps and nearly starts crying again. Gray can’t figure out why until she asks in a small, wobbly voice, “So--so you’re staying?”

This has the immediate effect of making sad, bitter, happy, guilty tears spring to Gray’s eyes. If she is being totally honest, she hadn’t really thought any of it through too much. Before she knew her siblings were here, she’d tried to squash any dreams of finding permanent residency here, though the Atwood siblings were slowly chipping at those walls. Now, though… “I...I think, yes. Yes, I am. As long as the Alpha will have me and as long as...as long as you two will have me, I’ll be here.”

Aria falls bodily into Gray’s shoulder and nearly topples both of them over. Gray hadn’t realized just how much Aria had been holding in for the few hours Gray had been here with them. This must have been eating at her fervently. “Oh, Aria,” she whispers into her sister’s hair. “I love you, my girl. I’m here for you. I’ll prove it this time.”

Aria shudders a few times, though no tears produce themselves. “I love you too.” She pulls away to give Gray a fierce look. “And you’d better prove it. You’re not off the hook.”

Gray can’t help but smile at her cute “stern look”, knowing undoubtedly that the amusement will only prove to irritate Aria. “I wouldn’t have it any other way,” she says, trying to smother her inappropriately timed joy.

Gray shares a commiserating look over Aria’s shoulder with Alexander and the exchange is so nostalgic it hurts. Alexander can’t smother his laugh when Aria catches them, narrowing her eyes and scowling. “One of these days,” she mutters, “I’m going to get to make some kid’s life miserable. I was always meant to be an older sister, I know it.” She sighs mournfully. “I would be so good at it.”

Gray bites down on a bark of laughter and contributes in a voice that’s supposed to be teasing but comes out somewhat shyly, still so unsure of her place with the Atwoods, “Raven’s a great sport.”

Aria’s eyes brighten. “Yeah, I guess he is. And the older kids treat him too much like heaven’s gift to mankind. There’s not nearly enough tormenting going on.”

Alexander rolls his eyes. “Come on, Ari. Don’t pretend you have any defense against Rayray’s charm. He’s like the mascot of the pack”

Aria huffs with a grudging smile. “Yeah, yeah, he’s a joy to be around, and all that.”

From there, the siblings just sit around and enjoy each other’s company, teasing and laughing, occasionally crying, and relearning each other. Gray starts to rediscover the sly wit she’d favored as a teenager, witnesses the simple phenomenon of Aria’s growth of vocabulary from eleven-year-old to teenager, and observes Alexander’s careful protection of and pride in her. It hurts to see the differences in a lot of ways, but it also feels overwhelmingly relieving. They really have been okay all this time. They’ve still had love and comfort in their lives, even if the beginning few months were trying.

Some things are stilted and awkward, there are times when Aria and Alexander share inside jokes and reference memories of events transpired in the time Gray was gone. Occasionally the two of them will fall into bantering back and forth just the two of them and realize all of the sudden that Gray is there too. She doesn’t mind the last part all that much. She has always been more of an observer by nature, and finds catharsis in just being in the presence of her family.

In the hours that pass, there are circular patterns that emerge. Every now and then, Alexander or Aria will say something a hair too biting about Gray’s disappearance and it makes Gray wonder if they found camaraderie in their anger, at times. Then they’ll feel guilty and apologize or make cumbersome attempts to draw her back into conversation. Gray wants to tell them it’s okay to be angry, but doesn’t know how. She decides just to bear their mood swings with patience in a show of actions speaking louder than words.

Gray was worried at first that she wouldn’t have much in common with them anymore, but Gray comes to the realization that, as much as their childhood was suboptimal to say the least, it was very unifying. It had always really been the three of them against the world. But the recent years have been Aria and Alexander against the world, and there’s still a lot of baggage between the three of them. So many unknowns still linger, so many experiences have been missed, memories they will never get back. It won’t quite be smooth sailing just yet. But the foundation is there, and the rest will come in time.

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