Before the Fall

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Chapter 30

“When I was sixteen, I killed four people.”

Slate hates telling this story. Hates it. That’s why he’s only done it three times. Once to the parents, once to the Alpha at the time, and once more because his own parents wouldn’t let him get away with half truths or obfuscation.

More people than that know the story, but they definitely didn’t hear it from his mouth.

Slate wants to bounce his knee, run his fingers through his hair, wring his hands, anything. But that would be giving up more than he’s willing to give. Slate knows how much a body can tell someone--he knows because he can read most people like books--and he wants the world to see only what he wants them to see. Nothing more, nothing less.

He bites the inside of his cheek until it hurts instead.

To her credit, Gray doesn’t have an immediate reaction of fear or disgust like most people would. And sure, maybe a few of those people would come around after he explained the whole thing, but it’s almost impossible not to draw immediate conclusions within the subconscious. Either Gray was prepared for something outrageous to come out of his mouth or she really is just innocently surprised, as her face implies. Shocked at most.

He’s not insecure about what he did. He doesn’t regret it. He would do it again if faced with the same circumstances. And still...while most of the time Slate can meld his emotional brain with his logical one, the two are a bit estranged with regard to these memories. His logical brain tells him he did what he had to do and no one he cares about blames or condemns him for it. His emotional brain torments him with thoughts of the families who are now missing a brother, a father, a sister, a mother. He thinks perhaps those people were just trying to protect themselves as well--Slate was just better.

He knows Gray expects him to continue, to defend himself, to hurry to explain himself, but he prefers to see her response first.

She stares for a long time until she realizes his intentions. Her mouth opens and closes a few times. What she ends up saying surprises Slate. With no malice in her tone, she infers “And when you heard what happened to me it reminded you of that?”

Slate remembers the conversation vividly. It was a meeting meant to decide the direction Gray and the pack wanted to take in regards to each other. Gray wanted her secret kept, but it would have been unfair for the Alpha to keep harboring an unfamiliar wolf on the territory he has cultivated as a safe space for their kind. Step one was to get to the bottom of exactly why Gray wanted to stay secret. The first reason was obvious: if people knew she could heal, she would be inevitably hunted and taken advantage of. The second reason that came out was a little more unexpected: she feared her old pack may still be looking for her for recompense, or something even more sinister. To support these points, she’d had to tell the story of why she left her home and became a nomad.

Needless to say, the violence of it had struck a chord with Slate.

He breathes deeply and thinks through his response very carefully. “Yes. The situations are very different, but in the end, it’s this: a number of people walked into a room--metaphorical or literal--with us and a fewer number walked back out.”

Gray’s eyes search the hands she has clasped on her lap for a moment before she looks up again. “How are the situations different?”

Again, Slate finds himself surprised at her. There are many things he could respond with that would still be the truth. He goes with two of the simplest ones: “My parents weren’t involved and I was personally responsible for each death.”

Gray sighs through her nose and she leans back in her chair like she’s settling in for a lengthy confab. “Okay,” She says simply. “Tell me what happened.”

Slate can’t get a firm read on her, other than she seems to be thinking very deeply.

Slate covers his eyes for a moment--one last sign of weakness--before sitting straight in his chair.

:::::

9 years ago, Northern Washington Wilderness...

Slate laughs and jabs his younger friend in the ribs with little gentleness.

Brandon gasps as the air gets pushed out of his lungs, “Dude, come on, you’re making me look like a wimp in front of my date.”

The sisters Slate and Brandon are doubling dating with giggle at Brandon’s attempt at charm. Slate rolls his eyes. “You’re the one who wanted to come out into the woods after the movie. It’s not my fault you keep getting distracted by Monique and tripping.”

The girls howl in laughter--wired with the late night/early morning adrenaline--as Brandon huffs with affront. “Whatever, don’t pretend you’re not just as distracted by holding Melissa’s hand.”

Slate turns to Melissa next to him and flashes her a secret smile even though he knows she’ll struggle to see it with her human eyes in the dimness of the night. Perhaps that’s why it comes so easy. He squeezes her hand and says to Brandon. “Me and Mel have an understanding, Brandon. I get to hold a pretty girl’s hand and she knows I’ll make sure you don’t embarrass her little sister in public.”

“Slate,” Monique huffs. “For the last time, we are only a year-and-a-half apart. I’m not Melissa’s ‘little sister’.”

Melissa laughs and stumbles into Slate as he guides her over an exposed root. “Then what are you?”

Brandon slings an arm around Monique and tells her, “Don’t worry, I got this one babe. I’ll take the words right out of your mouth.” He turns to Melissa without letting go of Monique. “Monie is your younger sister, Mel. There’s a distinct difference. One is less demeaning.”

Monique rolls her eyes, and insists, “Never call me Monie again,” but lets him pull her closer anyway.

“And don’t call me Mel,” Melissa chimes in with equal vigor.

Brandon squawks. “Slate literally just called you Mel two seconds ago and he didn’t get reprimanded for it!”

“That’s because Slate is Slate, dude,” Monique answers for Melissa as though the answer is obvious.

“What the heck is that supposed to mean? Okay you know what?” Brandon stops abruptly with a mischievous smile. “Let’s settle this right here. You with me Slate?”

Slate turns to face Brandon and slings an arm around Melissa’s shoulders, pulling her closer when he feels her shiver. She must be cold. “No I am definitely not with you, Brandon, because you’re about to do something stupid.”

“Pfft, what? When have you ever known me to make an ill advised decision?” Brandon waves him off with a grin.

“Okay, I’ll be the one to bite,” Monique says. “What are you wrapping us up in, now?”

“I’m so glad you asked,” Brandon thanks her smugly. “Slate and I are going to have a good ol’ fashioned race, like the Greeks used to do.”

Melissa pops a leg and puts a hand on her hip. “And this will prove what, exactly?”

“Well, obviously it will prove I’m better than Slate--but I’ll up the ante for you. I’m going to prove I am a better werewolf than Slate.”

“Oh boy,” Monique rolls her eyes, but she’s grinning. She turns to Slate. “Well? Are you just gonna take this?”

Slate shakes his head and looks heavenward for a moment before saying, “I suppose not. I’ll humor you, Brandon. What are your terms?”

Brandon cackles evilly. “Perfect. Nothing tricky here, just a classic full shift foot race. We’ll race from that tree,” he points to a distinctive tree about one-hundred yards away, “back here to Melissa and Monique.”

“Hey boys,” Melissa pipes up with a smug grin. “I can barely see anything in the dark, so I won’t be able to know if you cheat or not, and Monique’s eyes are much better when she’s in wolf form, so maybe she should shift too.”

It seemed like a very roundabout logic to Slate, but he wasn’t going to comment on it.

“Hey!” Monique said. “You just want me to embarrass myself because my control isn’t great yet.”

“Oh don’t worry, Monie,” Brandon smacks a kiss on her cheek. “We won’t make you do anything you don’t want to do. Peer pressure is wrong.”

Slate can see Monique’s eyes narrow and a jerk of her shoulders knocks off Brandon’s arm. “You know what, Mel? I’m going to take you up on that. I can do anything the boys can do.”

Slate clears his throat and all chatter dies down. “You can, Monique, but I would really appreciate it if you stayed with Melissa, so she’s not out in the dark all by herself.”

Monique sighs and acquiesces. “Okay, I guess that makes sense.”

Brandon squints. “If I suggested that, you probably would have stepped on my toes or something, wouldn’t you.” It’s not a question.

Melissa waves Brandon off. “Whatever, let’s get this on with. We’re already going to be in trouble for being out past curfew, we need to make this time worth it. Less arguing, more shifting.”

So the three of them dutifully strip with courteously downward pointed eyes, and with different levels of ease, melt down into fur and four legs. Slate had always been advanced for his age, always trying to keep up with Sara, so he’s almost as confident on four legs as he is on two. He knows Brandon is usually fairly proficient after taking a second to warm up, but he doesn’t know as much about Monique because she and Melissa live in another city more on the periphery of what they consider their pack boundaries.

Frankly, Slate just wants to get this over with and get everyone back home safe. None of them have ever been this deep into the forest, and it’s much more in Melissa and Monique’s neck of the woods anyway, so Slate is out of his comfort zone. He’s starting to get a bad feeling. He doesn’t much like the idea of breaking curfew in the first place, but people are always telling him to lighten up, so he’s going along with it this time.

When the three of them have successfully shifted, Melissa waves them off and says to the boys, “Alright, off with you! Get to your starting blocks.”

When Slate and Brandon have just reached the designated tree, they hear Melissa muttering to her four legged sister. “Oh, wait. Hang on, I think I’m getting a call.”

Melissa pulls her phone out of her pocket and the glow of it lights up the forest around her. She doesn’t even have time to bring it to her ear before they hear shouting in the distance. Slate startles at the sudden sound at first, but starts toward the girls, slowly at first, and then much quicker as the sounds get louder. When Slate is only halfway there, they start to hear gunshots and howling.

Howling.

From other werewolves.

Slate picks up the pace and barks at the girls to start running with him, but just as he’s passing them to lead the way, the gunshots get very close and Monique jerks like something very heavy has hit her and there’s a scary pause where everything sinks in and then there’s chaos.

Monique is howling and jerking on the forest floor in her wolf form. Melissa is knelt down next to her, trying to find the wound, but Monique, in all her fright and pain, can’t control her shift and painfully starts shifting back to human. Even without the agonized, terrified screaming, Slate would have known that was very bad. He didn’t see the bullet go through Monique, so he could only assume it had to be still lodged in Monique’s side. Who knows what kind of extensive internal bleeding was happening as the bullet shifted around in her rapidly changing body. Her body will be able to heal some, but there are some things even werewolves can’t come back from.

There’s barely any room to think before more gunshots happen and bark in the trees around them starts exploding as bullets hit them. Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees Brandon booking it in the opposite direction without a backward glance. Slate doesn’t blame him.

He doesn’t blame him, but in zero iterations of the same situation could Slate ever bring himself to do the same.

Slate quickly wheels around so that his body is between the guns and the girls and from one breath to the next, he’s human again. The second his paws are back to hands, he takes Melissa’s face in his them and forces her to look at him. She’s sobbing and trembling and shaking her head, but Slate gets her to focus on him.

“Melissa,” he says calmly. “I need you to take Monique as far away from here as you can get and then call an ambulance.”

“But-but-but, won’t moving her hurt more?” she stutters out between hiccuping sobs.

Slate doesn’t want to say that enough damage has already been done that it doesn’t really matter, so he presses his forehead to hers and speaks into the small space between them. “Mel, it’ll be okay. Just get her out of here--drag her, I don’t care--and get help.”

She puts her hands around his wrists where he’s still cradling her face. “What about--”

“I’ll be fine,” he cuts her off abruptly. They’ve already wasted too much time. “Go. Now, Mel, now.

He drags her up until she’s standing and helps her get her hands under Monique’s armpits to drag her away. Slate watches Melissa take three steps away before he turns back to the carnage, but turns back around for a bare second to find Melissa staring at him helplessly.

“I will be fine,” He tells her with strength and calm. It doesn’t have to be true, she just has to believe it is. Softer, he says, “I’ll see you soon, Mel.”

He doesn’t watch any longer, can’t afford to keep his gaze away from the danger any longer. All he has to do is cover them until they’re far enough and then he’ll follow...but with this many people still actively shooting in their direction...his body can’t catch all those bullets even if he was able to stand in front of the girls all the way through. The shots are coming from too many angles. He hears Melissa scream and wheels around enough to see that she hasn’t been shot yet, but that bullets are coming closer to her from multiple directions. She’s terrified.

He’ll have to address the source.

In the blink of an eye, he’s back on four legs and zeroing in on the closest shooter. The next moments, minutes, hours, go by in a haze of blood and determination. He tries to just incapacitate the first one, but once the gun is knocked out of his hand, he comes up swinging with a knife that catches Slate in the side. He realizes in a moment of clarity that these men are not just small game hunters. They had a mission out here, and Slate and his friends have impeded it. It’s either Slate and his friends or them, and he doesn’t care who has to die as long as it means his are protected.

He doesn’t make a sound as the knife draws blood, just pivots so that the next swing goes wide and he can take the man down hard enough that he’s never getting back up. When he takes him down, he draws the attention of two more. He thinks he takes a bullet to the shoulder, but he doesn’t notice much except that it throws him off balance for a moment. He gets smacked around as the battle wears on, sure, but a gun or baton or bat is like a nickel bouncing off of his 200 pound dense animal frame and as long as the bullets are through and through, they’ll heal eventually. He just has to make this fast enough that he can heal before he loses too much blood. If it’s a war of attrition, Slate will win every time. His patience and determination are unmatched. These men aren’t going back home tonight, he knows that--the question is whether or not Slate will be able to do the same.

Quickly after the first two shooters go down, the shots mostly die down except for a few further away, but then claws and teeth replace the guns. He takes down one werewolf almost before he registers that she’s not human. All he knows is that she’s trying to kill him. Melissa and Monique aren’t in danger now that the fighting is all close range, so he just needs to extract himself.

Except that they’re coming after him now. He has no one left to protect but himself, so if he could just get out of sight--

Then there’s another werewolf. A powerful werewolf. Slate is big and strong, but he’s only sixteen. He finds himself on the ground with the werewolf on top of him and he doesn’t stop fighting exactly, but he’s preparing for the killing blow, when then at the edges of his consciousness, Slate hears a young girl crying out. The werewolf freezes for just a moment, but it’s enough for Slate to get his claws in between them, and the only reason he catches the wolf in the face instead of the neck is because the man recovers quickly and dodges at the last second. He roars and stumbles away from Slate. After that, the shots have stopped and no one pays him much attention, so he turns tail and runs.

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