Before the Fall

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Chapter 27

5 years ago, Northern Washington wilderness…

He paces back and forth impatiently. Five steps forward, turn, five steps back. No straying from the tight circuit. He has gotten more accustomed to temporary life with no sight, and most of his comrades have learned of his need for consistency in surroundings, such that his spatial awareness can remain accurate. It has been a pleasantly long time since he has had to berate a man over his boots being out of place. He can weave around people just fine as long as they’re not in large groups--they’re easy to hear shuffling their feet or breathing. Sometimes he swears he can hear their hearts beating now that his sight is gone and he relies primarily on sound to navigate the world.

Some have given up on his plots to find a way to heal himself and his daughter, and have subsequently left the fold. Some he has forcibly removed. A solid core still remains, still believes like he does. Now he waits for a few of those wolves to return.

Impatient is a state he finds himself in often, but this time it has an edge. Information is currency in these times, and he hopes to find himself very wealthy very soon.

Finally scuffling feet sound in the distance. He walks confidently through their camp of tents and firepits and bloody game waiting to be cooked and eaten. He’d be quite a bit slower and more careful--probably with hands outstretched--if no one was around, but with eyes on him, he can’t appear weak or disadvantaged. He refuses to use a cane or any other humiliating tool that inferior strains of human use. He’s strong enough to do it himself.

When he reaches the edge of their established campground, he halts and clasps his hands behind his back to project an air of control and composure. “What have you found?”

“We have a lead on the location of the acclaimed physician.”

He releases a pleased rumble in his chest. “Well done. Where is he?”

“Canada.”

:::::

Present Day, Atwood Territory…

Gray finds herself back at her safe spot: her den in the densest part of the forest. She stretches languidly in her fur, forcibly focusing her mind on enjoying the metaphorical two steps forward and not circling around and around the one step back.

After the tumultuous but cathartic reunion, the three Holt siblings had been unsure about what to do next, only that they hardly wanted to let each other out of sight. Gray had stayed in her brother and sister’s home that night and the following day until dark before they’d realized some recalibration was in order. That first night, Gray had been set up with a little nest of pillows and blankets on the couch, but hadn’t slept a wink. Hadn’t even rested her head on the pillow. No, she’d sat sentry the entire night, paranoia running rampant. Her emotional brain told her she was exhausted and needed sleep, but her hypervigilant defense mechanisms were under the impression that now that something good had happened, attack was imminent. Subsequently, sleep was an unnecessary function, it said.

Gray wasn’t sure if Aria had actually thought she could get away with a mediocre attempt at stealth when she snuck into Alexander’s room, or if she was just desperate enough that she didn’t really care if Gray knew she ran across the hall to bunk with Alexander in the middle of the night. It should have stung, being excluded, but Gray was just glad they were getting the comfort they needed. She had no expectation of seamlessly plumping up their duo to a trio. Actually, the thought of attaching herself to anyone else like that was quite terrifying for Gray, family or no. She’d only had to worry about herself for so long, only had herself to depend upon, that it was almost laughable to try to reprogram those deeply ingrained truths so soon. She isn’t sure if they’ll ever completely go away, but she’ll try. For them and...and for herself.

The next day was spent indoors entirely, because Gray couldn’t very well start waltzing around the Atwood compound for everyone to see. So the three of them were cooped up, trying to make meaningful conversation--mostly succeeding, but occasionally lulling into uncomfortable silence. They still had so much to learn about each other, so much to share, but at the same time it felt so unnatural for Aria and Alexander to just start chatting about their friends and people Gray didn’t know. Gray couldn’t very well provide any stories of the same ilk--she just didn’t have any. Their lives for the last three years had been a stark lesson in dichotomy compared to how they’d lived their childhood.

By now, Aria and Alexander had, in most ways, moved on from or at least learned to live around their trauma. Gray had not.

So when snippy remarks started bouncing between the three of them like a pinball machine, Gray begged off. For their sake, Gray ignored the sighs of relief when she suggested she bunk somewhere else for the night and find them later the next day. She suspects Aria and Alexander will spend the day apart as well, if she knows them at all anymore. Close as they may be, siblings are not meant to live underfoot at all times. Gray had abruptly interrupted the carefully constructed dynamic that allowed Alexander and Aria to effectively cohabitate.

So Gray retreated to her den. Now in the morning after her sleep in the forest, Gray lets these thoughts meander around her brain while she stretches in the morning sun. Soon, she begins walking a small perimeter around her den. She goes through the motions partly for the sense of control and comfort the mindless routine gives her, but also because of good ol’ hypervigilance, her ever present friend. With only oneself to depend on and the knowledge that if one shows her face to the wrong person, one quite possibly might be cruelly abused...well, one becomes great friends with hypervigilance.

She trots along pleasantly, treading as lightly and soundlessly as ever. Feeling as light as she does now is...foreign. Good. The crushing weight of guilt and fear surrounding her siblings’ well-being is lifted for the first time since she left them. She’d forgotten what it felt to not have the burden.

Grace rounds closer to her den and tenses when she starts to hear and smell a werewolf nearby. She creeps quietly, slowly, eyes sharp and ears keen. The closer she gets, the more familiar the scent becomes. When she gets close enough to peer through the foliage at the yawning opening of her den, the sight that greets her makes her huff and roll her eyes.

Up ahead, a set of eyes are tracking her with unerring accuracy though there’s no way he can see much more than hints of red auburn fur as she adroitly uses her familiarity with the forest to camouflage herself. Despite this, she’s obviously been caught, so she abandons stealth and tramples loudly over the green and brown forest floor just to show that she doesn’t care that he’s here and no, of course he hasn’t caught her unawares. Have you met her? Definitely not.

His chest rises and falls in a huff of laughter and he looks off to the left to hide a smile--a real smile. Gray does not stumble for one step, no she does not. In all the weeks she’s been here, the amount of times a real smile has been aimed at her could be counted on two hands. Little half smiles or quirks of the mouth happened semi frequently, but rarely a full blown smile.

When she arrives in the little clearing in front of her forest home, she cocks her head at him. He’s leaning against one side of the rocky opening with his arms crossed. She can’t discern any intentions from facial cues or body language and she can’t ask as a wolf, so she curls her tail around her and waits for him to make the first move.

He looks down at her for a moment, before shrugging a backpack Gray hadn’t noticed from his shoulders. He unzips it and pulls out a purple shirt. His voice is calm and patient when he asks, “Will you shift so we can talk?”

Gray thinks for a moment and decides she wants to make him sweat, keep him waiting just to see what he does. So she swipes her tail across the ground twice and blinks innocently at him. He doesn’t drop his hand, nor does his face make much of a change. Gray counts to twenty-five before the right side of his mouth quirks up. He seems to have caught on to her game and plays his trump card. Which is...sheer patience and willpower.

He’s judicious in his movements when he simply returns the shirt back to the bag, takes three steps forward to place it between her paws, sidesteps her, and walks forward to lean against a tree, his back to her. Clearly, he’s giving her privacy, which Gray rolls her eyes at. She’d changed forms the day of the confrontation, just two days ago, in front of him and an audience of four more. Surely he remembers this. So what he must really be attempting to communicate with the subtle power move is basically that he could do this all day. He’d offered her the easy way, and when she didn’t acquiesce, he left her with the hard way.

She watches him for several minutes. Usually a normal person would be fidgeting or shifting weight or glancing conspicuously over their shoulder or something. But this man is stone.

Gray huffs loudly and scratches the floor enough that he can hear her. She’ll be doing what he wants, but she’s not happy about it. As she lets the change come over her and feels the burn course mildly through her limbs, she thinks she sees his shoulders rising and falling in quiet laughter. Pleased with herself, Gray smiles and dons the solid purple shirt and jean shorts. The reason for the smile is twofold. Yes, she’s rather full of herself about making him laugh, but she’s also pleasantly surprised to feel herself being so animated. She’s acting more like the Gray of Before. She hasn’t found herself carefully calculating each movement. She’s not too wrought with tension to have a sense of humor or move her body fluidly.

Once clothed, she brushes her hands over the shirt to dust off any detritus before clearing her throat loudly. Slate stays casually stood against the tree, but turns his head just far enough that she can see his raised eyebrow. Gray huffs and crosses her arms. “Do you always get your way?”

Slate finally pushes off the tree and gives her a classic half smile with the right side of his mouth. He starts toward her and shrugs his shoulders. “Did you see me forcing you?”

Gray rolls her lips in and sticks her tongue in her cheek to stop the smile wanting to break across her face. She’s positively giddy with her new progress. She doesn’t say anything until he’s standing by her, his hands in his pockets like always. She narrows her eyes and gets a sly smile on her face. Just how far can he be pushed? “Well, no.” She pauses for drama. “Did you see yourself this morning?”

He cocks his head but his face remains relaxed and open. She wonders if she’ll get to know him well enough one day to see what’s behind those eyes. Is he feeling suspicious, curious, uneasy? Is he confident? Calculating, analytical? Surely something more than his placid face suggests.

“Well,” she rocks back on her feet. “I’m just surprised you’d leave the house like that.”

He sighs as though he doesn’t particularly feel like humoring her, but will anyway. “And how’s that?”

Gray shrugs nonchalantly. “I just didn’t peg you for a man who’d leave the house with a stained shirt on.”

Slate rolls his eyes. “Is this the part where I look down at my perfectly clean shirt and you laugh and call me anal-retentive?”

Gray curses under her breath. Slate - 1. Gray - 0.

“Alright, fine,” she surrenders. “Now that you’ve won your game, will you tell me why you’re here?”

Slate gets a look on his face that’s not quite blank and not quite a glare. Gray’s brows furrow. Has something happened? “I don’t play games, Gray.”

He pierces her with those blue-green eyes then. Her eyes widen. She’s not used to this from him. She’s seen him pin other people down with a stare like this, both intentionally and unintentionally, but he’s never been so direct with her before. She hadn’t realized until she had the juxtaposition how gentle his eyes have been for her. She swallows nervously. If she’d offended him somehow, she doesn’t think it will be so easy to get his trust back. “I’m sorry, Slate, I didn’t mean--”

Annnnd he’s smiling. Mouth closed, one side higher than the other, eyes crinkled.

Slate - 2. Gray - 0.

His chest rumbles in an amused hum. “Payback,” he shrugs matter-of-factly.

Gray wants to scowl, but finds herself clearing her throat to hide a laugh. She tries to deadpan like him, but doesn’t think she quite manages it. “You’re right, I should have known that wasn’t true. Raven told me how he beat you at Go Fish the other day.”

That gets a real laugh out of him. A head thrown back, unabashed grinning laugh. It doesn’t last long, but for a rare moment it’s there.

Slate - 2. Gray - 1.

“Fair,” he says with a lingering smile that reaches one side of his mouth.

Gray grins. She shrugs, “Payback.” When he just shakes his head at her, she breathes another laugh and asks with joviality she hasn’t felt in a long time. “So what really brings you here?”

At this, his eyes meet hers with the familiar hint of warmth that she didn’t know had been there all along. Gray supposes she’s getting to know him and his quirks ever so slowly after all. “Do you want to come pick apples with me?”

Gray blinks. She hadn’t been expecting that. “Um, okay.” Getting her wits about her, she frowns a little. “Have you not had enough help? You should have asked earlier, I could have--”

“I don’t need help, Gray.”

She frowns deeper. “Then why did you ask?”

Slate shifts his weight. Gray’s brows shoot up. That’s a pretty big tell. She doesn’t know exactly what it tells, but it tells something for sure. Still, his face looks as placid and unreadable as ever. “I meant exactly what I said.”

That...was definitely not an answer, but Gray senses that’s the most she’s going to get out of him. She thinks back to what he’d asked. As she replays the words in her mind, a few stick out--with how judiciously he used them, each one was important. He’d asked if Gray wanted to pick apples and he’d asked if she wanted to do it with him. Three days ago Gray would probably have found the idea...not unpalatable, but not something she’d call exciting. She’d say yes, because Gray never knew how to say no, but it would leave her tense and anxious. The idea of being alone with him for the first time...well, Slate was a more complicated and intimidating figure for her than he was even for most people. It would be daunting.

Now though, after seeing her brother and sister alive and well and cared for... After having a night to herself to process… After he’d smiled and laughed and joked and put her at ease...

She could genuinely say, “Yes. I would like that.”

:::::

Slate hadn’t told anyone his plans for this morning. The two people who know him best, Asher and Sara, hadn’t suspected a thing. It’s actually quite satisfying to know he’s still capable of keeping secrets from the two people who’d ever have a fighting chance of reading him. He’d had various and sundry reasons to keep the operation covert. One, he didn’t want or need his siblings’ input on the situation. They could each have their own relationships with Gray. He didn’t need to meddle with them and they didn’t need to meddle with him. Two, he didn’t want any secret spies lurking in the shadows where they thought they could sneak past him. Three, he didn’t want to have to deal with the unnecessary pitying, fawning attention that would come from a rejection. And fourth, he didn’t want them to ask questions he couldn’t answer. Namely, questions about feelings. And emotions.

As he was asking Gray his prepared question, he couldn’t say he was nervous per se. If she said yes, okay, that was great. If she said no, well that would be disappointing, but contrary to most people, when Slate hears “no” he doesn’t read into it “I hate you” or “You’re stupid” or “What a jerk”. A no is simply a denial of a request. Another person’s reason for saying “no” doesn’t have to have any bearing on Slate’s self opinion or confidence. If she said no, Slate would have liked to know why so that he could proceed appropriately in context, but ultimately it wouldn’t have to affect him personally.

Or that’s what he would have liked to think of himself.

It would be true for ninety-nine percent of other interactions with any number of people--and for this one, it was still mostly true--but there was an undeniable pull in the knowledge that she could be...good for him. That maybe this one thing could be only his and nobody else’s. Not that he had any desire to hoard her attention or affection or something equally inane, but having a relationship with someone not related to him for no other reason than to make him happy was...novel.

But he wanted her to want it too.

An addendum to reason four for not wanting to expose his plans to his siblings is the fact that there is a cruel and unusual possibility that he’s so exhausted he might break and actually tell them all the things he keeps hidden for a reason. Slate learned at a young age that he needed to expend every ounce of energy he had every day, to tire himself out so thoroughly that his brain physically would not be capable of torturing him into the early hours of the morning with racing thoughts, “what ifs”, nightmares...memories. He’d suffered crippling insomnia for nearly his entire sixteenth year before he figured out that secret. He credits that discovery as the reason he was able to get through his mother’s death intact three years later.

The problem now--and the reason for the addendum--is that none of his tactics are working anymore. He’s running more than ever, making more house calls to pack members, tending to nearly every last tree in the orchards, spending time with the kids--anything he can think of to tire his mind. Everything he can think of. And still, his mind won’t rest.

But of course Slate isn’t having all sorts of emotions about this. Have you met him? Definitely not. Slate doesn’t have feelings.

“Yes. I would like that,” she says.

Suspense ended. Slate exhales. “Great. Ready to go?”

Gray tilts her head and gets a little smile on her face. She’s pleased. “Lead the way.”

:::::

Gray curses Slate’s ability to mask his feelings for what she suspects will not be the last time. He tilts his head over his shoulder and starts to walk toward the smell of fresh fruit and pack. After a moment he slows, and Gray relaxes her pace to meet him until she realizes he’s trying to let her set the pace. It’s something so simple, but so out of the ordinary for her. Gray’s childhood pack had been traditional in many ways, including and not limited to male dominance and feminine deference. Gray hadn’t ever been in a long term monogamous relationship with a man, but she’d gone on a few dates...with only men her father had vetted and approved. Mostly, those men were either just like her father or desperately trying to prove themselves to him. None of those boys would have ever let her lead them on anything.

And here is this most eminent and predominant force of a man letting her set the pace. It’s...nice.

Gray walks them forward at a casual pace. Not rushing, but not quite strolling either. For a few stressful moments, she panics because she has no idea what to say or how to start a conversation--until she processes the fact that he’s not making furtive glances at her or opening and closing his mouth awkwardly or fidgeting. He seems to have...no expectations. He doesn’t expect her to make engaging conversation or ask him about his favorite movie or food or music genre. Actually, she almost laughs at the ways he might react if she’d asked him about something as fatuous as a favorite movie. She imagines he’d hold up a conversation in his usual way if she wanted to talk about those things, but he seems to feel no pressure to fill the silence himself. So he doesn’t. He just is who he is, take it or leave it. Maybe...Gray can just be who she is too. With him.

So they walk along in comfortable silence, the birds and squirrels providing comforting ambient noise, until Gray starts to process exactly what this outing will entail--more importantly, where it will take place. Which is...not exactly the heart of Atwood territory, but definitely not hidden in Sara’s or Holt siblings’ houses.

She slows her steps and clears her throat nervously. “Um, Slate?”

He slows with her and raises his eyebrows. “Hmm?”

She winces. Normally his cool demeanor is comforting, but right now it’s kind of making her feel like a neurotic child. Quietly, she asks “Is it really a good idea for me to be out in the open? Won’t people see me?”

He shakes his head before she stops talking. “I should have clarified. I’ve given everyone who’d have a reason to be in the grove the day off, and we’ll only stay in the outside rows that edge up against the forest line. No one will be within several acres of us.”

Gray stares at him with squinted eyes for a long moment before accepting this explanation. She exhales as she says, “Okay. Thanks.”

Gray starts to walk again, but Slate doesn’t follow. He cocks his head at her. “You can still say no.”

Gray considers this seriously for a moment, but her thoughts circle back to where they had the first time. She’s lighter than she’s been in years--maybe ever--and she feels comfortable with Slate. Maybe a week ago, things would be different, but her mind goes back to the realization that...he just doesn’t need her. And she doesn’t need him.

“No,” Gray says with a peaceful tilt to her lips. “I want this.”

They don’t talk a lot on their walk, but then, Slate is Slate and Gray has never been a prolific conversationalist herself. What they do talk about are generally safe, innocent topics.

They talk about the orchards for a bit. Slate tells her which apples go in which bin--he carries the heavier one and Gray carries the lighter one. Gray asks about where the apples go after they pick them, and what they do with the bad apples--he promises her they can find a way to get her to safely come to the next farmer’s market, if she wants. She wonders aloud how old the trees are--thirty years.

They talk about their siblings some. Gray feels brave enough to fish for how far apart Slate and Asher are, because they seem curiously close both in relationship and age--eleven months, irish twins, they’ve always been close. Gray knows the close relationships between her siblings and the Atwoods, so she asks for Slate’s opinion on how Alexander seems to like having brotherly figures in his life--Slate admits that he is very aware of how intimidated Zander is by him and doesn’t seem too inclined to amend it, is actually kind of amused by it, but that Zander and Forrest are best friends and that his father adores both Zander and Aria. They bond some over being older siblings--they both had changed more than a few dirty diapers by the time they were teenagers.

If Gray ever gets lost in her thoughts or if conversation lulls for too long, Slate will prod here and there about her past. After a few of these occasions, she figures out that he seems to be testing which topics to avoid and which ones Gray is more comfortable with. Home life and parents are immediately shut down (“We weren’t close.” End of conversation.). Education is okay (Gray was pre-med, Slate got an associate’s in agriculture science only for the sake of it but found very little joy or satisfaction in it.) Childhood friends are hit or miss (Gray had friends in the way that she was friendly with everyone so she doesn’t have much to miss, and Slate’s friends generally didn’t stick around through tough times, but he says he’s only ever needed his family.)

Slate volunteers very little information about himself on his own and only a little more when asked directly. He’ll talk freely--though succinct as ever--about his family, the orchards, the pack, but carefully evades or gives vague details about anything personal. Gray isn’t brave enough to venture too far into those things anyway. As much as she feels comfortable being around Slate, she worries that she’d encounter some sharp edges if she tried to pry too deeply into him. She’s never seen him be particularly unkind or even sharp of voice or demeanor, but that’s because he never has to be. He has carefully cultivated an impregnable wall of privacy and mystery that everyone who has been around him for more than a few hours knows not to knock on. If no one comes knocking, there’s no need to engage the defense.

She does ask one question that seems of no consequence to her, but gets an interesting reaction from him. She’s on her tiptoes reaching up for a few higher branches when she asks curiously, “Why did you choose apple picking?”

There’s a pregnant pause as they both rifle through leaves and branches. Slate’s eventual response is, “Hm?”

Gray falls back down on her heels and turns to him. She can only see his profile, but he gives no hint as to how he’s feeling. She clarifies, “Why did you ask me to come to the orchards as opposed to something else?”

He picks an apple and puts it into his bag, working his jaw. The moment stretches on so long that Gray goes back to the apples patiently, completely oblivious to any tension that might be in him or in the air between them. In time, she sees in her peripheral vision that Slate has turned toward her, so she stops and turns back to him again as well. They’re facing each other full on, but several steps apart. Slate has dropped his bag and now rubs one hand across his mouth as he looks to the left, away from her. Finally, he drops his hand and looks at her with eyes full of a thousand words, all in a language she has no idea how to begin interpreting.

“My mom took me here a lot, when I was a kid--all the time,” he says. “I take Raven and Sage here almost every Saturday. Forrest comes with us more often than not.” His lips twitch and his eyes smile. “Asher calls it our bonding time.”

He pins her with his eyes for another moment before turning back to his work, and that’s that.

After Slate walks her back to her forest home, she thinks on that short exchange for a long time. It was another not-quite-an-answer answer, but it seems to fit a few more puzzle pieces together all the same. She still isn’t sure what it’s going to look like at the end and it’s turning out to be more complicated than she thought, and yet full of so much more color than she’d given it credit for.

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