Before the Fall

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Chapter 29

3 years ago, Canadian Wilderness...

He scoops more broth into his mouth, by now fairly proficient with a utensil, plate or bowl, and a meal he can’t see. Soup is harder than other things, but that might possibly be because he avoids it like poison and therefore has very little practice.

Suddenly a phone rings somewhere to his right, making his whole body flinch and soup slosh off his spoon and onto the table, presumably, and his shirt. He snarls menacingly and is eternally grateful he’s by himself. It’s been several months, not quite a year, and this new site in Canada still takes some getting used to, and they have some new men who aren’t well versed in living with a blind man. He spends most of his time sitting in his tent calling others to come to him or alone. Especially with Alpha Jackson’s men watching him, testing him, he can’t afford to expose weakness.

He can tell where the phone is more from the epicenter of the vibration on the table and less from the ringing that bounces off the sides of his tent. He lifts the phone and puts it straight to his ear--no use for caller ID if one cannot see it. Still so many stupid things he hasn’t gotten over missing. It itches at him, everything he can’t do. It’s another claw in his eye every time he’s reminded of his own shortcomings.

“Hello,” he growls with no inflection.

The voice on the other end clears its throat roughly. “Uh, yes, Silas?”

Who knew Alpha Jackson was quite so spineless? When Silas started questioning his leadership when they first met, he immediately felt the pressure from Silas’ more dominating presence and usually tries to puff his chest and make his voice gruffer. It would be much more amusing if the Alpha didn’t have so much leverage and therefore all the power over Silas.

But this voice does not sound...like normal Alpha Jackson. Something is wrong. “Jackson, what has gone wrong?”

“Well…”

“Tell me,” Silas commands with no small amount of vigor.

Alpha Jackson clears his throat again. “There have been a few events that have transpired in the last week that you should be informed of.”

“The last week?” Silas rages. “Why are you just telling me--? No. Jackson, just tell me what happened and I’ll do my best not to rip your head off.”

Alpha Jackson’s voice hardens at the threat and he bites out, “Richard Holt has been murdered.”

:::::

Present day, Atwood territory…

Sara sighs as the pain leeches from her back and head. The stomach churning she’d felt all night that kept her up ebbs away slower, but after it does, it’s like nirvana. She squeezes Gray’s hand and smiles at her. “Gray, my friend, I would marry you if I wasn’t already taken.”

From the other side of the couch behind a book, Jason huffs and says, “She wouldn’t last a day with you.”

Sara shoots Gray a look that tells her she had seen her choke on a laugh, before poking Jason with a foot. “More like you wouldn’t last a day without me.”

Jason shuts his book halfway and gets a dreamlike look on his face--and boy is it a beautiful face, Sara thinks. “Let me just imagine this…” he draws out. “A day with no one to complain about my cooking, no one to poke their ice cold toes on my legs in bed, no one to--”

“Okay, okay,” Sara struggles to straighten herself out of the glorious slump she’d had going. “How about this: you keep going and I use my icy toes to kick you all the way out of the bedroom and onto the couch tonight, huh? Like the sound of that?”

Jason’s eyes go wide and he winces before getting a sweet smile on his face, “Babe, Sara, let’s not get too ahead of ourselves, okay? We can work this out.”

Sara smirks smugly. “Uh huh, and how’s that?”

Jason reaches out and starts to massage one of her--thankfully socked--feet. “How about this. You just keep your socks on and everyone’s happy, yeah?” He pulls the fabric of her right sock and lets it snap back onto her foot.

Sara rolls her eyes. “You know I hate socks in bed, but I’ll do it just for you.” Jason opens his mouth, but Sara bulldozes on. “Just remember I’m cooking a baby for you, so you owe me infinite favors when I decide to cash in on them.”

Jason smiles goofily and looks up at her through his blonde fringe. “Not totally sure that’s how it works, but okay, I’ll go with it. For you.”

“Love you babe,” Sara smiles widely and genuinely at his cute face.

Jason looks at his watch and claps his hands on his thighs. “Alright girls,” he says to

Sara and Gray, “I’ll leave you to do your girly thing while I go take Raven and Sage out on a bro date.”

Gray and Sara both laugh this time and Sara waves while Gray smiles shyly. “See you,” she says.

Body now sufficiently boneless, Sara stretches out across the two cushions of couch that Gray isn’t perched on and sighs happily. “What a time to be alive,” she says pleasantly. Then, “Sorry J and I kind of dominated that conversation. How’ve you been?”

Gray smiles but gives Sara a look. “Don’t pretend you guys can resist having a cutesy married-couple argument every half hour.”

Sara shrugs unrepentantly, then a thought occurs to her and she can’t let it go. “Speaking of married couplessss….” she smirks, “how’re you and Slate?”

When Gray goes quiet and contemplative, Sara worries she may have gone too far with the “married couple” comment. She does, on occasion, take a joke a bit too far and shove her foot into her mouth, and this is a sensitive topic. She winces. “Oh honey. What’s going on? Talk to Dr. Sara, she’s an expert on both love and Slate Atwood.”

Gray rolls her eyes, but smiles with good humor. She waves a hand. “No, no, nothing bad has happened.” Then it just tumbles out, seemingly without her permission. “It’s just...it’s so hard to get him to talk and I think he’s been avoiding me and then I had this talk with Asher yesterday and…”

Sara scrutinizes her friend for a moment. She sighs in sympathy. “And it’s just a lot to take in?” Then she wrinkles her nose and complains, “You’re in kind of a weird situation, my friend.”

Gray laughs at Sara’s face and the older of the two feels very smug at the sound. It’s always gratifying when she can elicit a reaction from the slowly thawing younger woman. “I don’t know if I would use the word weird.” Then Gray pauses and gets a fond look on her face. “I know someone else who would though.”

Sara cocks her head. “Who?”

Gray waves in another dismissive gesture. “Just from a conversation I had with Aria and Alexander the other day.”

Sara shakes her head. “That girl is going through a barb-y phase isn’t she? She called Slate weird?”

Gray winces and nods. “Among other things.”

Sara sighs and rolls her eyes. “The girl doesn’t seem to know when her sarcasm is just a hair too biting. If I heard her calling my brother weird she would’ve gotten a smackdown for sure.”

Gray shrugs. “I scolded her a bit. I don’t think she really thinks of him in a negative way, she’s just being…”

“Too cool for school?” Sara supplies.

Gray shrugs one shoulder regretfully. “I guess.”

Sara shrugs right back. “Don’t worry, girlie, it’s just a phase. The teens are hard years.”

Gray’s mouth quirks into a smile. “You would know. You’ve got one the same age.”

Sara throws her head back and laughs. “Ah yes, that I do. Sage has a whole different set of issues, but at the end of the day it’s just those pesky hormones driving them a little insane.” Gray grins. Sara’s face smooths out again as she meets Gray’s eyes. “Back to your own odd little situation though…”

Gray relaxes back into the couch and half smiles. “Back to Dr. Sara?”

Sara smirks. “Duh. Just don’t ask to see my credentials.” Sara waits another moment before starting again. “About you and Slate, there’s some things I think we need to have a conversation about. It’s probably overdue, actually.”

Gray frowns but pulls her feet up under her and shifts so her back is to the armrest and she’s facing Sara, so they’re mirror images of each other. “Okay.”

Sara nods and opens her mouth...but quickly pauses and closes it again. She doesn’t want this to be a surface level or rote conversation in any way. This isn’t meant to be a typical “shovel talk”. She supports both of these people with all her heart and wants them to succeed in all their ventures, but ultimately, her loyalties lie with her brother. She would take a bullet for Gray, considers her a sister, but no one has the twenty-five years of partnership that Sara and Slate have had. Gray needs to understand something, and Sara needs to express herself clearly to help her do so.

After thinking deeply for another moment, Sara begins anew. “When you talked with Asher the other day, did he tell you he and Slate are each other’s other half?”

Gray’s rust colored eyebrows draw together. “Yes...how did you know?”

Sara shrugs. She won’t say it out loud, but she wonders if these things she just knows sometimes come from that tiny spark of magic within her. “I had a feeling. But notice how I said that Slate and Asher are each other’s other half, not that they are two halves of a whole. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but it’s true for the two of them. They’re too different to have come from the same root. They fit together seamlessly, but they don’t complete each other, they complement what was already there. You see it?” Sara asks to make sure Gray is following her.

She looks a bit confused but nods which is good enough for Sara, so she continues. “Well Slate and Asher have a special bond, one that goes beyond our earthly sphere, or whatever,” she says, feeling a little silly. “So it’s slightly different, but Slate tends to have a similar effect--if lesser, only because no one can physically do the things Asher and Slate can do--on everyone he loves. See, if Asher is Slate’s other half, he’s my best friend. Jason is my mate, my husband, and he holds my heart, but Slate is my best friend. He draws out the best in me, and I try to do the same for him. You wanna know what Sage says about Slate?”

Gray’s eyebrows are still furrowed in concentration. Sara’s gratified by the intentedness. “What does he say?”

Sara smiles fondly, proudly. “He calls Slate his hero. Wanna know what Forrest says? What Raven says?”

Gray nods.

“Raven says he wants to be Slate when he grows up. Forrest is too old to admit it now, but he’s said Slate was the first person to make him feel like he was normal. He never said he thought Forrest’s glasses were cool or that they made him special or that he was unique. He just didn’t care about them at all. They were just a part of Forrest, and he loved Forrest. Are you following me?”

Gray nods.

Sara smiles again. “Are you wondering why I’m saying all this?”

Gray looks back at her consideringly and Sara can tell she’s got Gray hooked. She nods again.

“Well, if you asked Aria, she’d say Slate’s weird. If you asked someone else, they might say he’s aloof or too quiet or odd.” Sara pauses for a moment. “My point is this,” she continues. “Slate has a few people he loves so fiercely and wholly that they call him a hero or best friend. He puts all his love and energy into making those few people feel special and loved and cared for. There are a few people outside the family who he cares for on a similar level, but outside that small group, he really doesn’t...have anything left to give, you know? It’s not exactly that he doesn’t care--though it might seem that way to others sometimes--but he has the people he has and doesn’t need anything else. Make sense?”

“Yes,” Gray says quietly.

“My point,” Sara says, to regather her thoughts, “is that you have the potential of being one of those people in Slate’s inner circle. You are in a very unique position. It’ll take time and effort from both of you and--Gray, I just need you to be patient, okay? It’s worth it, I promise”

Gray looks a little overwhelmed at the barrage of information coming her way, but Sara feels like she has to make Gray realize how special this is, how much she can have if she gives her True Mate a chance. Her thoughts may have come out in her typical round about and meandering thought trains, but she needs the overarching message to have come across. Slate deserves someone who values him as much as he deserves to be, to love him as fiercely as he loves them.

Sara wants to make sure Gray is that person.

:::::

Gray thinks back on the short ending to the conversation that had happened two days ago. Asher had told her, I’m going to see him now, but you should come see him soon too. It’s not just...I mean there are other things that--just, if you show up at his door, he won’t turn you away.

And then the talk with Sara yesterday…

It was all so intense. The only way Gray knew to cope was to spend another night of deep contemplation out in her den. She doesn’t know exactly how long “soon” Asher thinks is supposed to be, but Gray knows the longer she lets it stew in her mind, the larger and more intimidating the exchange will build up to be. She just hopes Slate will meet her halfway.

It’s a Saturday now and Gray had spent the morning with Sara, as she normally does, and left the house once Sara told Gray that Slate should be home from his long standing Saturday walk with his younger brothers.

Gray wipes her damp palms on her jeans before she lifts her hand to knock on Slate’s door. She raps the wood three times in quick succession before stepping back a few feet to put some space between herself and the door.

Gray can hear footsteps coming closer to the door before he opens it and lays first sight on her in nearly a week. Gray feels arrested by his gaze for a short moment before she shakes her head and greets him quietly. She’s so nervous, it’s hard to meet his eyes. “Hi, Slate.”

He’s quiet and only nods in response to her question. When she finally looks him in the eye, she’s a little startled by what she sees. He looks...tired. His hair is in mild disarray as though he’d been running his fingers through it and he’s wearing only gym shorts and a soft looking gray cotton shirt. His feet are bare. His mouth is tight and the skin at the corners of his eyes is wrinkled in a way that speaks of stress, not smiles. There are shadows under his eyes.

He nods slightly and greets her in the same low volume. “Gray.”

Gray waits. Then blinks for a moment longer before drawing up her courage. She didn’t expect this to be easy, but she had honestly expected for him to be a little more responsive. He never says much, but he rarely has a hard time communicating what he wants to communicate either. Right now it seems a little like...he’s tired of making the effort to be heard. But that might be Gray reading too much into things.

She swallows and clasps her hands together in what she hopes does not come off as a nervous gesture. “Do you mind if I come in for a bit?”

He seems to shake himself a little and with that, any vestiges of tender weakness have vanished. It’s almost startling to have seen the change come over him so abruptly. He runs a hand through his hair and flattens it until it’s almost completely back to his normal look and he steps to the side and opens the door wider. His face relaxes to hide any unease. He clears his throat and gestures her in. “Of course. Come in. You’re welcome to anything you see.”

Gray smiles a little bit when he reminds her of his father. Ever the generous gentlemen, they are. “Thank you,” she says demurely and sits in on the couch when he guides her toward it. He sits on an adjacent armchair. The layout of his home is almost identical to Sara and Jason’s and she wonders if they were built around the same time. It’s located about halfway between the Atwood family home and Sara and Jason’s.

Slate rests his elbows on the arms of the chair and laces his finger together over his stomach. He asks easily, “How can I help?”

Gray suppresses a smile. He can be so intimidating sometimes, but then he’ll say something that reminds her so strongly of herself and she remembers he’s only human. She hums and says airily, “I never said I needed help.”

He pauses everything for a moment before his tightly controlled features soften halfway into a faint amused quirk of the lips. “Fair.”

Gray tenses back up when he waits for her to expound...and she’s very suddenly questioning whether now is the time to broach the topic of his odd behavior and why in the world his siblings thought it was a good idea for her to come here to his home, his safe place--when something bright and colorful catches her gaze. On the counter across the way is a neon yellow plastic children’s bowl with a similarly toned blue spoon in it. It catches her so off guard mid-spiral that she can’t even think to hide her amusement. She laughs, gesturing to the bowl and spoon, “Are you afraid of dropping your dishes?”

Slate follows her gaze and rolls his eyes, eyeing the implements with fondness. “I’m afraid of Raven dropping and breaking my dishes.”

Gray tilts her head with a lingering smile. “He was over here today?”

Slate nods. “He wanted to have breakfast here before our walk. Sage too. Forrest just came for breakfast and then left.” He rolls his eyes at the last part.

“Ah, that’s right,” she teases shyly. “You’re the highly acclaimed cook of the family. I’d forgotten.”

She gets a lifted eyebrow for her troubles. “Some might say.”

Feeling much more on familiar ground, Gray takes advantage of the open transition. She tries not to make her observation sound too acute. “I haven’t seen you around at Sara’s much this week.”

His face doesn’t change except for his eyebrows coming closer together. “I’ve been busy.”

“You’ve always been busy,” Gray challenges. It should feel much more odd that she can feel so timid and persistently worried with people like Asher and yet she feels completely unafraid with Slate, a man many consider to be frightening in general, a man of mystery. But it doesn’t. There’s something about him that makes her want to be bolder. Perhaps he doesn’t take up as much...space as most people, and it leaves Gray room to be herself.

The man in question considers her for a long moment. With a quirk of a brow, he repeats, “Fair.”

Another classic non-answer.

She presses. “How have you been? Stressed from work?”

He tilts his head back and forth in answer.

She squints at him and decides this situation requires a little bit of Atwood bluntness. “Are you avoiding me?”

It’s a question many might consider lying about with no regret. It’s a rare creature who likes confrontation. Slate, though, seems like a man who rarely lies--unless it’s about his own well-being, she predicts.

“Yes.”

She blinks. That was easy. “You have?”

“I have.”

When he continues to look completely unconcerned, Gray huffs with impatience and prods, “Why?”

At this, Slate sighs and covers his eyes for a moment. His jaw spasms and he looks to the side for a long moment, obviously struggling with something. When he looks back at her, his eyes are intense and nearing hostile. “You reminded me of something unpleasant.”

Gray blinks and has the immediate reaction of fear--fight or flight. The animal inside of her recognizes the predator in front of her whom she has just poked with a stick. She feels her hands start to sweat again. Then...she sits with it for a moment and starts feeling, in an unusual display for her, the sensation of anger. She frowns at the floor and takes calming breaths to come down from the fear and settle into the anger--if it’s one or the other, the latter is preferable.

When she looks up, Slate’s eyes are still narrowed at her. Gray is determined to stand her ground. “You are trying to intimidate me. On purpose. You didn’t like my question, so you’re trying to scare me away.” She leans forward and tries to make her eyes as intense as his so often are. “It won’t work.”

Slate’s reaction is to return her challenging stare until it’s uncomfortable. Gray doesn’t want to be the first one to look away, but she discerns that this is a time when Slate’s patience and stubbornness will prevail no matter how much she pushes. Whatever, she huffs. She’s made her point. She rolls her eyes and crosses one leg over the other, annoyed at having been stared into submission.

She tries to give him a look that communicates, Come on, give and take, help me out a little. Slate takes deep breaths and covers his eyes with a hand again. A breath seems to stutter in his chest only once before he bodily caps the emotion. All his muscles relax, almost one by one--except for his jaw. Gray thinks she now knows what Slate looks like when he’s a “basket case” and it irks and saddens her in almost equal parts. Gray sighs and refuses to feel guilty. All she was doing was asking for some reciprocation. There can be no relationship between them--friends or otherwise--if he doesn’t try as well.

“Slate,” she starts softly, “you can’t hide from ev--”

“When I was sixteen,” Slate interrupts her abruptly, “I killed four people.”

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