4 Years Ago, Canadian Wilderness…
A voice clears its throat just outside his tent. He blinks awake. “We’ve found the name of his pack, sir.”
He growls deep in his throat. He’d had another dream with perfect eyesight and it crushes him everytime he opens his eyes back to darkness. It’s been five years since he’s seen his wife’s face, since he took his son to school, since he brushed his little girl’s blonde locks. He doesn’t know if her hair has faded more into a mousy brown like his wife’s as she grows into a young woman or if it has stayed golden. The one thing he is grateful for is that he doesn’t have to see her limping around with her cane. He can hear her shuffling across the floor with one leg dragging slightly and the cane’s dull thumping as she uses it to help her walk, but even that needles at him like glass under his skin. If he had to see her like that, his precious, human little girl, he might lose his mind to the rogue animal that claws at him on the inside, some days.
The only reason he and his traveling band have stayed sane in their years of exile has been staying close to each other. They’re not a family, at this point they don’t even like each other sometimes, but they need each other. They’ve seen what loneliness can do to a werewolf. In fact, they use the poor souls who weren’t quite so lucky, they train them to be their pets. It’s not like the early days anymore, when they’d had to put down nearly all their experiments after a mere week or two. It’s not perfect, not enough to take out into the world just yet, but he can be patient.
He growls louder this time, so they can hear. “Yes, yes, I’ve heard you. I’ll be with you shortly.”
He dresses quickly, tired brain sluggishly processing the news. It was somewhere in the middle of the day when he’d lain down for a nap. He still doesn’t sleep well when he can’t track the moon and the sun, so he catches an hour or two of sleep at odd times of the day and night.
He pushes through the flaps of the tent, knowing not to walk too far out or he would bump into the men he can hear breathing a few feet away. “What have you found?”
There’s some rustling of clothing as one or both of them shifts where they stand. “We believe we’ve identified his pack, sir. The physician.”
His mouth slowly stretches into a grin, feeling the warmth of the sun breathe down on him. “Ah, yes. The acclaimed Richard Holt will be ours yet.”
Present day, Atwood territory…
It’s a couple days after Gray’s day in the orchards with Slate and she’s now sitting down with the intimidating Alpha trio, as Alexander has referred to them a few times: Alpha Atwood, Sara, and Slate.
She’d been briefed a bit by Sara beforehand, so it doesn’t come as a surprise when the Alpha says, “It’s time to bring in the pack.”
Gray swallows. It isn’t a surprise, but she still doesn’t like it. Weakly, she tries, “Isn’t everything working the way it is now?”
Sara squeezes Gray’s shoulder in sympathy while the Alpha sighs across the table from the two of them. He says with some evident regret, “I understand your point of view, Gray, but it is my responsibility to care for all the needs of my pack, and it is bordering on disrespectful that we have been so secretive thus far. For all intents and purposes, we’ve been harboring an unfamiliar wolf on our territory for almost two months. This can’t go on any longer.”
Gray avoids their eyes. “Okay. What do we tell them?”
Alpha opens his mouth but suddenly Slate, next to him and across from Sara, puts a hand on his father’s shoulder. It catches the man off guard if the blinks of confusion at the offending appendage on his shoulder are any indication. “Slate?”
Slate pats his father’s shoulder once before removing it and says, with his eyes on Gray, “Are you in danger?”
Next to her, Sara tenses. “What do you mean danger? She’s safe here, Slate, I know you know that.”
Slate huffs and leans back in his chair. “Yes, Sara, Gray is completely safe with us, I agree. What I want to know,” his eyes shift back to Gray, “is why you are so nervous to reveal yourself?”
The way he says it makes it clear there are no accusations being made, just information gathering. Slate is simple that way.
Sara waves a hand in impatience. “Slate, come on. This is every sci-fi novel ever. If people knew what Gray could do, she would be hunted down and taken advantage of. It’s no wonder she wants to stay in the shadows,” she turns to Gray with a smile, “but we’ve got your back, chica, no matter what.”
“Sara, come on,” Slate mimics his sister with a pointed look. “We both know this is not a sci-fi novel, and things are not that simple.”
Sara grumbles and glares at her brother. “Don’t mock me. Maybe she’s just--”
“Ahem,” Alpha knocks the table between his quarreling children twice with a knuckle, “if I may.” He turns to Gray. “Perhaps you’d like a chance to speak for yourself, Gray?”
Gray wants to laugh at the way Sara deflates and winces. “Sorry, my bad,” she mutters.
Any semblance of a smile fades from Gray’s face as the attention focuses on her and she resists the urge to shift uncomfortably. With her new peaceful awakening has come the greater inclination to make unconscious human gestures and actions. As the wolf, she was more in tune with every shift in her body, having no other way to communicate beyond physical cues. In the human world, words come first and actions come second.
Settling into tense stillness, Gray starts with resignation, “Well...there actually is another reason I’ve stayed under the radar the past couple years. But I have to tell you the story first.”
So Gray takes a deep breath and begins the retelling of events from three years prior. It’s odd, explaining things to people who never knew her then. It allows her to be much more clinical, to skip the gritty emotional upheaval and stick to the most important parts. The odd thing about it, Gray supposes, is that to her and her siblings--the two of them being the only other people Gray has ever told the unabridged story to--every part was important. If one thing had been different, any one thing, their lives could have had dramatically different trajectories.
But as much as these people care about her and her emotional and mental well-being, not all that stuff is relevant. It’s still a painful tale to tell, but remembering the events in terms of fact and reasonable assumption helps her process things a bit more. It feels a bit less like she still hasn’t scrubbed all the blood off her hands and more like a haunting memory of events transpired years ago. It’s still just as devastating as ever, but less suffocating. She has kept this story inside for so long that it feels a little like coming up for air to share it with people she trusts.
As she trails off, Gray can feel Sara’s wide eyes on her. When Gray sneaks a look at her, she’s not exactly gaping, but her jaw is slack and her eyes are wet. She raises a hand like she wants to touch Gray, but seems to understand that she is still tender from the retelling, and so instead rubs her forehead as though trying to wrap her head around what she has just heard. Alpha Atwood has his elbows on the table and interlaced fingers resting against his mouth as he considers her. He looks...sad. A little bit like he wants to wrap Gray up in a blanket and give her a chipped mug of warm milk. Slate is leaning back in his chair with his arms crossed and his head bowed. She can’t get a read on him.
When Gray is starting to get uncomfortable with the silence, Slate lifts his head with a very carefully blank expression. He lifts his brows at Gray. “And you’re worried your previous Alpha will be searching for you?”
Gray nods. “I can’t say for sure, but...he has to have put enough pieces together to know that I was heavily involved, and he’ll want someone to blame.”
Alpha Atwood speaks from behind his laced hands. “And you think he will have been persistent enough to keep searching three years later?”
Gray’s shoulders slump. It hurts to make the admission. “Maybe not if he was looking for me purely for vengeance, but I wouldn’t be surprised if my father revealed the knowledge of my healing powers to him. Alpha Jackson loves power, and someone who can do what I can will give him a lot of leverage. People will be seeking him out to pay for my...services.”
Gray cringes at the verbiage, but that’s just how Alpha Jackson would see it.
“Okay,” Sara says, and Gray isn’t sure if it’s to herself or to the room. “Okay, we can work with this. We’ll be okay.”
Gray warms at the usage of the word we.
“We certainly can,” Alpha smiles softly at Gray. “You have no reason to fear, dear girl. There are ways we can integrate you into the pack without revealing too much. We’ll talk about how to deal with the possible threats, but first: have you ever tried colored contacts?”
A week later, Gray is lounging in her siblings’ house just after Aria has come home from school and Zander has come home from his part-time job bagging groceries, as is not an uncommon occurrence.
“Hey,” she wonders aloud in a lull, “has Slate seemed a little...off lately?”
Aria raises an eyebrow. “And by ‘off’ do you mean weird and sketchy as all get out?”
Zander dramatically looks around. “Are you sure you wanna be saying that, Aria? He’ll probably hear you. I swear he has ears everywhere. The man knows everything.”
Aria rolls her eyes. “Please. I don’t know why you’re so scared of him. Slate acts like he knows everything as a ploy to get you to say more than you want to.”
Zander shakes his head. “No, dude. If he catches you at the wrong moment, it’s like truth serum. You don’t even realize what happened until after.”
Gray considers this with amusement. Slate does tend to have a lot of obscure tidbits about the pack tucked away until it becomes relevant. Gray supposes it’s a combination of simply paying attention, perceptive aptitude, good listening skills, and no one noticing the quiet guy in the back of the room while they share intimate information. And of course, the truth serum face.
Gray’s thoughts halt suddenly “Wait, you mean you have noticed him acting weird?” she asks Aria in surprise. Before the teen can answer, her mind zig-zags around and back to an earlier comment and she blurts without thinking, “And you’re insinuating you’re not afraid of Slate?”
“Well,” Aria sticks her tongue in her cheek. “First of all, Slate is always acting weird and sketchy in my opinion, so that’s hardly out of the ordinary.” Then Aria’s eyes skitter away from Gray’s momentarily before she pointedly meets Gray’s eyes and lifts her chin and says, “And of course I’m not scared of him. Why would I be scared?”
Gray can’t help but roll her eyes and exchange a look with Zander.
“Oh come on, why are you looking at each other? I’m really not!”
“First of all,” Zander side-eyes his younger sister. “You think anyone who can manage to keep their mouth shut for longer than two seconds is sketchy.”
Aria huffs and gestures wildly with her arms. “Okay, fine, I like to make conversation. Is there something wrong with that? And we both know Slate takes ‘strong and silent’ to a whole new level. He’s got some screws loose or something.”
Gray frowns. Aria’s just joking, but that doesn’t sit right with her. So far, the only people Gray has interacted with in the pack are the Atwoods and her siblings, but from what she has gleaned, it seems that people not blood related to Slate have a curious fear-confusion-respect-intimidation reaction to him. They respect his authority and power, seem to love him the way you love a good packmate, but they don’t seem to know what to do with him and people don’t like things they can’t understand. “Aria, it’s not a crime to be an introvert.”
Aria blinks at Gray’s tone. “Okay, sure, but come on, Slate--”
“Has his reasons,” Gray continues softly but firmly, “and the people important to him understand him just fine.”
Aria looks chastised and slightly guilty, but unwilling to admit to her trespass. “Yeah, whatever. I’m still not afraid of him,” she intones sullenly.
Zander looks at Gray with searching eyes for a moment and Gray is reminded guiltily that she hasn’t revealed to her siblings the particular details of her relationship with Slate. She sweats for a moment, but Zander has mercy and sighs fondly, turning back to Aria.
“Alright shortstack,” he straightens and leans into her. “The next time you see Slate, I dare you to ask him a question--anything. Just you wait. You’ll open your mouth to get his attention and then his abyss-deep, soul searching eyes will turn on you and you’ll freeze on the spot. Bet.”
Aria glares. “I’ve talked to him before, you know. I think he’s weird, I don’t think he’s a leper. And what exactly am I supposed to ask him? I’m not going to make myself look like an idiot for the sake of a bet.”
Zander glares back. “Oh yeah? How many of those conversations weren’t about coordinating times to hang out with Sage? That doesn’t count. Ask him for help with your math class or something.”
Aria folds her arms. “I’m trying to not look like an idiot.”
“Okay fine then…”
The conversation flows around Gray and she lets it be. She’ll have to get another opinion closer to the source.
Two days later, Gray sits in the Atwoods’ living room--something slightly out of the ordinary, but not her first time, either--and nudges Asher next to her as she watches Sage and Raven play some video game and reluctantly lets Sara drool on her shoulder.
Asher lowers the book he’d been reading. “What’s up?”
Gray had tried to think of a casual question that wouldn’t sound offensive or probing--she thinks she was mildly successful. She tries it out. “Nothing, just wondering how Slate has been lately.”
Asher smirks as if she’s just said something amusing. “Oh, you are?”
Gray tilts her head and gives him a look. Without thinking, she shoots back, “Are you still twelve-years-old?”
She tenses immediately, because while she feels completely comfortable with Sara Jason, she still has a knee jerk reaction of fear when she feels like she might have accidentally overstepped. Fortunately Asher doesn’t seem to notice and just laughs and closes his book on his forefinger. “Sorry, sorry. Couldn’t resist. Slate’s just so fun to razz that it kind of rubbed off on you a little bit.” Gray, braver now, nudges him gently with an elbow. “Oh right, Slate. Um, yeah he’s doing...okay, to my knowledge.”
Gray notices the pause, but doesn’t comment. Asher continues, “I’ve actually only spoken to him once or twice briefly in the last week. Been a little overloaded with school lately and it’s hard even for me to get a read on him unless I’m in the room with him. Or he’s willingly sharing something through the bond.” He pauses thoughtfully for a moment. Eventually, he sighs and says, “That said, I know Slate pretty well, so I can impart some wisdom on the enigma that is Slate Atwood, to whom it may concern.”
Gray perks up at this. Frankly, the most information she gets about Slate is what she hears from other people. “Okay.”
Asher grins at her for a moment before sobering into contemplation. “The people closest to Slate are all of us--his family. You’ve seen that, yes?”
Asher tilts his head back and forth and seems to amend his previous statement. “Well, I will say that he’s been especially focused on Sara and working through pack business with Dad lately, or he would be more involved in the community at large--because the pack is very important to him too--but I digress.”
Gray hasn’t really seen the blue-green eyed man interact with anyone except his family and Gray’s so she has no way to verify, but she doesn’t doubt his devotion to his pack. She nods and prompts, “So that means…?”
“Right. Yes. The point is that in general,” he rolls his eyes, “he’s not always this much of a basket case, I promise. There’s just a lot going on with all of us. He feels a lot of responsibility for the family.”
Gray blinks in confusion. Basket case? Since when? Gray had seen him not even a week ago to meet with him, Sara, and the Alpha. He’d seemed completely normal. The abnormality came later, and it was nothing to warrant the label of “basket case”.
Asher blinks back at her before realization dawns. He waves his hand in dismissal. “Oh yeah, sometimes I forget that he still looks like a stone man for, like, the first three years you know him. I’ve had twenty-four years of practice and a freaky mind connection, so sometimes I forget other people can’t interpret levels of tenseness in his jaw.”
Asher grins at her again when she stares blankly. “He’s rather self contained, don’t you think?” He asks mirthfully. “Don’t worry, you’ll get there.”
Gray shakes her head to try to stop it from short circuiting. First at the fact that Slate could apparently be a basket case and still appear indifferent, and then at the subtle implication that she’ll be around for three years to learn how to read him. “Okay,” she says slowly, coming back to reality. “So...he really hasn’t been acting normal? I was starting to think I was seeing things that weren’t there.”
Asher’s smile freezes and quickly drops into concern. He sits up and asks, rapid fire, “You mean you’ve noticed him acting out of the ordinary? How?”
Gray shrinks back slightly at the sudden barrage. “Oh, um, I can’t be certain, but I think he’s avoiding me. I’ll usually see him a couple times a week at Sara’s house, but recently he always seems to have other things to do or have just left before I get there. And he seems almost...angry when I see him.”
Asher stares at her for an uncomfortably long moment before he seems to come to a conclusion. He slumps back into the armrest of the couch and runs a hand through his hair. “Shoot. I knew I shouldn’t have left him alone for a week when I knew he was already having a tough time--and don’t tell him I said that.” His mouth pushes to one side for a moment as he meets Gray’s eyes. “Follow me.”
Gray startles, but takes the hand he offers and lets him help her off the couch anyway. Sara slumps into the space Gray used to occupy, still sleeping like a log. She’s been tired as the pregnancy has progressed.
Asher leads Gray around the corner and up the stairs into a bedroom. Asher sits on the bed, gesturing for her to sit on the chair by the desk a few feet away.
The moment she’s settled, Asher jumps right back into the conversation as though no time had passed. “The thing with Slate is that he’ll never ask for help. Ever. You kind of remind me of him that way--you two are surprisingly alike, actually--but Slate...he’s been through more than most of us. When he was younger, he was always the kid who would take the blame for something he didn’t do, just so someone else wouldn’t have to take the punishment. He’s always been that way. And he’s so strong and stoic that it’s too easy just to pile all your crap on him because it seems like he can just...take it. He’d carry the world on his shoulders for a stranger, and the stranger would never know how heavy it really was.” Asher huffs sadly, but fondly. “I think he learned that part from my dad.
“But that’s just it,” he continues. “It’s like he got all this strength from my parents and none of the self preservation skills...so he learned his own. Something happened when we were teenagers--his story to tell, don’t ask me--and I think that’s when he learned to just...not feel. Well, for himself, anyway. It may not look like it anymore, but believe it or not, he used to be the kid who’d cry when someone else’s dog died and never shed a tear when he shattered his own hand trying to coax a kitten down from a half dead tree--true story,” he huffs. “And then after Mom...well, I think it’s going to take years of practice and patience for Slate to unlearn the things that have been ingrained and reinforced in him since he was sixteen.”
Then Asher pauses for breath. He won’t look at Gray anymore, but the words tumble out like he just can’t keep it all in. Gray wonders if he has ever had someone he could talk to about this. She wonders if he’ll feel guilty about this later or if it will just be a relief.
When he speaks, it’s almost too quiet for Gray to hear. “Let me tell you a story, Gray.” He lets out a calming breath, seeming to center himself. “Six years ago, my mom passed away after she gave birth to Raven--by not even an hour. My Dad and Sara were both in the room for the birth. Dad to hold Mom’s hand and Sara to help the midwife.
“And Dad...well, Raven was small and weak, so he left easily when Mom told him to go be with Raven after he was brought out of the room to get warm and clean. The midwife told us later that Mom made certain Dad left then because she was starting to get a bad feeling. But she still looked okay then, so Dad left to be with the baby. When things started going downhill fast, Sara started panicking so Mom told her to grab some clean cloths and a cup of water or--just something stupid so she’d leave the room, you know? But Sara didn’t want to leave her alone, so she called Slate to come in and take her place, and of course he came running--and Mom didn’t send him out.” Asher spares her a loaded glance. “He took one step into the room and knew he wouldn’t be letting Sara come back in the room, so he sent her far away to be with the rest of us. He had to have caught on to what Mom was doing--you know how perceptive he is, it’s like a sixth sense. So Slate was...was the only one in the room with the midwife when Mom took her last breaths. She said something to him in her last moments, but he never told me what.”
Silence reigns for a long moment. Gray is stunned. This conversation is not one that she expected or prepared for at all. Always a bleeding heart, her eyes start to water and her chest gets tight. She can picture Sara feeling the situation start to slip away from her and all control dissipating before her eyes. She can imagine Alpha Atwood rushing off to be with his brand new baby, leaving his wife in what he thought to be good spirits and good hands.
And Slate...Slate the fortress is the only one she has a hard time imagining. How would he be feeling in that moment? Was he numb? Was he already grieving? Was he panicking? Could he have possibly compartmentalized enough to stay truly calm?
Asher takes a deep breath and turns to meet Gray’s eyes for the barest of moments before his eyes flit away and unfocus again. He continues, “That’s not even the end of it. Dad couldn’t bear to even go be with the rest of us kids right after...after she passed. He just stayed with Mom in the room for a long time. And Sara was just so...so crushed, I guess. Unravelled. So she begged Slate to be the one to tell us Mom was gone. She couldn’t do it. But Slate...” Asher shakes his head out of some memory. He sighs as though he’s thought these things a million times, circling and circling. It’s a familiar sigh. “He didn’t show it, the pain, because he knew he had to be strong. Because Sara just--she begged him… And I want to be angry at Sara for that, and at Dad for leaving us alone, even at Mom, who made it so Slate was the only one of us in the room when she passed. But I can see exactly why each one of them did what they did and I can’t say I wouldn’t have done the same, so how can I lay blame?”
Gray’s eyes are watering and she feels a lump in her throat. She aches at the pain that leaks from every picture Asher paints. She admires him for his vulnerability.
Gray finally finds her voice. Softly, she asks, “How do you know all this?”
Asher’s smiles sadly but fondly at whatever memory plays behind his eyes. It’s clear these things are still incredibly painful to recollect, but that they’re old wounds by now. “He was bleeding over into the bond. It was one of the only times he has ever had his guard low enough that I could see flashes of images and spots of audio as time passed.” He sobers. “That’s how I know Mom’s last words were to him, but I couldn’t hear what she said. Some of it I pieced together from listening in when I wasn’t supposed to. And I just know my family.”
Gray can’t say anything in response.
Asher finally faces her with dry cheeks but red rimmed eyes. He roughly drags a hand over his face and sets his jaw. He looks determined now. “Slate has no preservation skills, like I said earlier. So it’s my job to protect him.”
Grays eyebrows shoot up. It shouldn’t be surprising, but it is. She knows Slate and Asher are very close, but it seems as though there’s more to their dynamic than she initially thought. “Okay,” she says for lack of anything else to say.
Asher nods firmly, stares at her, thinks for a moment, then shakes his head roughly. “No, Gray, you don’t get it. It’s my job to protect him because he doesn’t know how to do it himself. He’s my other half, you know?”
Gray nods faintly, overwhelmed by his intensity and unsure what direction he’s taking this.
“He’s my other half, Gray, but there are places he doesn’t even let me get near. Get it?”
Gray blinks several times and rolls her shoulders in with insecurity. She whispers, “Not really?”
Asher’s eyes soften and his next words are gentle and understanding. “I’ll always be Slate’s best friend, and he’ll be mine. But I don’t fill all the roles he needs in his life and you are in a very unique position, my friend. You can fill some of those roles.”
Gray feels every muscle tense as she starts to shake her head viciously at his insinuation. “Asher no, I could never take your place.”
Asher huffs, and it seems to be a little bit amused. A sad kind of humor. “I know, Gray. I’m not asking you to. You’re not there yet. Not even close. But,” Asher looks deeply into her eyes, “you and I both know the beautiful direction this could go, in time. I’ll always be there for him--always--but if you want to be someone close to him, someone really important to him, you have to learn to protect him too, got it? He needs people he can trust. He doesn’t do that easily, if you hadn’t noticed.”
Asher has collected himself enough to almost look back to normal, save for a sad tint to his eyes and tilt to his lips, but Gray gulps and oddly starts to feel her throat clogging with tears again. She doesn’t really want to say yes, if she’s being honest. She doesn’t want that kind of pressure. How do you protect a man with steel traps around his heart? But she also sees what Asher is saying. Gray still has a kind of hard time seeing past Slate’s impassive demeanor, but she does get occasional blinks of the everlastingly kind, tortured soul he’s seeming to be.
Does she want the responsibility? Not really. Does she want Slate to be okay and happy? Does she want to be a part of his life? Yes and yes.
Does she have her own hang ups and complexities that Slate will have to learn to be a part of hers?
There’s no choice but to answer, “Yes. I understand.”