Before the Fall

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Chapter 32

3 years ago, Canadian Wilderness…

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

Silas wants to roar his rage and frustration (and despair), but he restrains himself at the last moment. He knows his silence is more threatening. He breathes heavily over the line for a moment before he opens his mouth to condemn his ally, when the man cuts him off rather brazenly for a man who has lost all his leverage. Probably the smartest thing Alpha Jackson has done is continue to merely tease Silas with bits of information here and there with the promise that once he has proven himself--and isn’t that laughable--he will be put in contact with Richard Holt, the nationally renowned physician. It has given Alpha Jackson all the power with Silas having little to offer except his yet to be perfected faction of controllable rogue werewolves.

What Alpha Jackson says surprises Silas. “Holt is dead, but I have something better.”

Silas still breathes fire, but prompts Jackson to continue with a grunt.

“I have reason to believe there is a wolf with supernatural healing abilities.”

“Stop speaking in riddles,” Silas growls, trying to disguise his growing kernel of hope.

“A trusted source has told me that he has been in contact with a wolf that can heal all injuries, human and werewolf,” Jackson says smugly.

One would expect Silas to be cursing Jackson to hell and back for keeping this information from him until he could have something else to hold over his head. It’s smart. Cruel, but smart. But no, Silas cannot curse the man right now because if what he’s saying is true, then his little girl can be...healed. She can stop suffering for Silas’ zealotry, when he brought his young--so young--children out into a battlefield, albeit unknowingly.

Little Evie, not quite so little anymore, can be whole again. And if Jackson is to be believed, maybe Silas can too.

“Who is this source, Jackson?” He demands.

Another suspicious pause. Jackson clears his throat, “Well. The source was Richard Holt.”

This time Silas does roar.

:::::

Present day, Atwood territory…

Alpha Brett Atwood hums to himself as he searches for the right words. Once he finishes, the email will pass through both Sara and Slate for minor edits and to make sure the intended message is communicated as clearly and concisely as possible, but the Alpha tries to make things as easy for his two oldest as he can. Sometimes his brain tortures him with intrusive thoughts about how Camille would have phrased something or how she would tease him for agonizing over something so simple just to put him at ease. If she was here, she’d be the one reviewing his words and his children wouldn’t have to concern themselves with these things at all.

But Camille is gone.

Sometimes he curses the fact that these unrealized memories infringe on his mind on a daily basis, but other times he welcomes them. Camille doesn’t deserve to be relegated to old memories reminisced upon only when a pang of melancholy hits. She deserves to exist and grow alongside him, even if only her ghost follows him now. She didn’t deserve to be purged from the world before she even hit fifty-years-old. Brett didn’t deserve her being purged from the world ever.

He thinks she would be proud of him if she could see him now. Perhaps she wouldn’t be proud of a few things he did or didn’t do in the first years following her death, but she would understand. Brett has to believe that. And he knows she would be proud to see him standing tall now as Alpha of his pack. She would be proud to know of the new houses they’d built and the new families they’d welcomed on the property in the three years he’d been Alpha. She’d be proud to witness the strength of community Brett has helped foster.

He exhales harshly and sets his shoulders to bring himself back to his present duties. He’s crafting a mass email sent to all the members of the pack regarding a certain little miss Grace Holt. They’d decided to simply send out an announcement that the Holt siblings’ sister had found her way back home and is now to be welcomed as a new member of the pack. Brett’s first thought was to gather the pack together on the fields and have a celebration to welcome Gray and introduce her to the pack, but of course, that was quite unreasonable to put on the young woman considering all the circumstances.

Instead, he will send out this email informing the pack of Gray’s arrival and inviting them to introduce themselves if they happen to see her out and about. He’s sure a few families will drop by the Holt household and drop off a meal or plate of desserts to welcome her personally, but most, he hopes, will respect Gray’s desire for normalcy and slow inclusion. Brett has encouraged her to accompany Aria to the pack schoolhouse, or shadow Sara for a day as she does a few house calls, or even go with Asher to meet some of his friends.

Of course, none of this moved forward until Gray was comfortable enough with the brown colored contacts they’d picked out and many assurances were made that any sensitive information would remain clandestine.

He makes a few final edits before sending the email off to Sara and Slate, trusting them to get back to him with any suggestions or corrections before the end of the day tomorrow. What he wishes they could really get to the bottom of is the rogue...situation, for lack of a better word to capture its full gravity. The biggest frustration is the simple and stark lack of information. He’d poked around with the neighboring packs trying to see if they’d had similar experiences, but none of them had familiar stories. Brett had no choice but to operate on the assumption that someone or something was either targeting his pack or the area. Either this adversary wanted his pack or his land.

The obvious first thought is that someone is after Gray, but there had been a few odd reports in the weeks before she arrived--or at least before the Atwoods were aware of her. He’d have to bring her in soon and discuss when exactly she settled in their neck of the woods and if she’d noticed anything off in her travels in the past year. He mentally notes to ask her the last time she’d been sighted by the public. To see if the rumors have caught up to her. It’s possible someone could be tracking her this way.

Brett drags a tired hand down his face. That poor girl has experienced so much turmoil for someone so young. The life of a werewolf is inherently different from an average human’s for so many different reasons, and Gray has come face to face with many of the most difficult ones. His deepest hope is that she and his son can heal each other’s hearts the way she heals flesh and bone.

:::::

The noise in Slate’s head is getting too loud. He just needs to get through these schedules and then he can put his running shoes to pavement. Since they’d started sending out patrols in random intervals, Slate has had to do a lot more work manually. Before, there had always been a degree of hands-on planning--a computer program can’t account for family emergencies or burn out or any number of extenuating circumstances--but now scheduling everything takes so much more time. He rotates different teachers in and out of the werewolf tailored self-defense phys ed classes the pack runs as well as crash courses in controlling the shift, using senses, communicating through the bond, and sometimes extra lessons for the kids--or adults--who request it. Now with irregular patrolling, he has to painstakingly go back and coordinate all the schedules together so no one wolf is spread too thin.

Slate has always scheduled himself in significantly more slots than anyone else, but he doesn’t begrudge anyone this responsibility because his full-time job is the pack, along with the more hands-on elements of the orchards. The scheduling and administrative duties of his various responsibilities have never been fun, but he’s at least enjoyed leading classes and patrolling and going to farmer’s markets. But no one seems to be acclimating well to the shift in what had been a consistent, well oiled machine and it’s causing people to forget appointments, complain about the increase in workload, and generally have worse attitudes. Now he’s covering enough shifts in any given area just to give himself less of a headache that it’s almost completely unenjoyable. He knows he’s not at his most congenial at the moment, so he at least makes sure someone else is heading the group at the markets.

Fortunately, he has his long runs to look forward to at the end of almost every day. Once they found out how heavy Slate’s load had become--and berated him for never saying anything--Sara and his father had shifted and redelegated duties so that he could clock out every day by six pm at the latest. Given that he starts his day before the sun rises, it still allows for a rather taxing work day, but it helps Slate sleep at night.

At 6:14, he gets a bond message from Asher that’s a simple image of a clock and an overall feeling of disapproval and chastening. Slate sends him back a roll of the eyes and a quick slideshow of him closing out all his documents on the computer and a snapshot of his running shoes by the door along with a smile of gratitude.

As Slate changes out of his sturdy jeans and boots and dons his running shorts and shoes, he remembers he’d promised Gray he’d find her for his next run. He feels bad about it, but he sighs at the thought. It’s not that spending time with her is a chore, he enjoys her company, but her presence produces a lot of complicated emotions that...kind of is a chore to work through. Or ignore.

Nevertheless, he promised her and he won’t go back on it. He sends a quick message to Sara. Is Gray with you?

It takes her a moment to respond, but that’s not out of the ordinary. He can’t expect Sara to be sitting around quietly waiting to randomly hear from him. She’s probably finishing a conversation or getting to a stopping point in her own work. When she responds, it’s a curious, Yes. Why?

Tell her I’m on my way. Going on a run.

Sara’s response this time is lightning quick. What? You mean you’re coming by to say hi before your run or something?

If it was Asher, he would send her a big eye roll, but he settles for, No. Just tell her to put her contacts in if she still wants to come. ETA five minutes.

A short pause. Okay.

Slate thanks her and walks out the door. Once he hits the dirt road, he kicks up dust in a slow jog to Sara’s house. He tries to use the few minutes of quiet to silence his mind and get in the right mindset.

When he arrives at Sara’s house, the door opens before he can do it himself. It’s Jason, eyeing him curiously and holding the door open with hand. Slate nods at him in thanks and crosses the threshold. Sara’ sitting on the couch with her feet propped up on an ottoman with an examining expression. Gray is nowhere in sight.

Slate raises his eyebrows at Sara and she squints in return. “Gray’s in her room changing. She just finished with the contacts, they’re a pain.”

Slate nods and drops into a chair while Jason slumps back down beside Sara. “How are you?” he asks Sara.

Sara’s squint turns into a beaming smile. “So good,” she gushes. “I think I’m starting to get a bump. Gray is the best.”

Slate smiles. He’s unbelievably happy for her. He knows how hard this whole process has been. It was heartbreaking to watch her go through it. “I’m glad you’re doing well,” he tells her. “But I think it’s a bit of a stretch to blame a little bit of extra fluff on the baby.”

Jason’s eyebrows shoot up to his hairline and he leans back as though trying to get out of the crossfire between siblings. Sara gasps incredulously. “Slate, are you insinuating you think I’m fat?”

Slate shrugs and smirks at her. “I never used the word ‘fat’. There’s no shame in putting on a few pounds. You have no one to impress anymore, after all.”

Sara leans over Jason to poke a finger in Slate’s face. “Oh yeah? Well I’m pretty sure your abs are getting a little more ‘fluffy’,” she air quotes. “Seems like you’ve hit the other side of your peak years, bud, hate to break it to you.”

Slate drops the smirk and fully grins. Sara has never been remotely overweight and Slate has always had some definition in his abdomen, which both of them know with equal certainty. It’s just fun to rib each other.

Sara grins back and leans back, settling into the cushions again. “Love you, bro.”

Slate smiles at her. “Love you too, bear.”

It’s probably more pregnancy hormones than anything else, but Sara’s eyes seem to get a little glassy. Usually Slate only calls her that when no one else is around besides them. People generally have a tendency to misunderstand Slate because he doesn’t speak most people’s language--he shows love and appreciation in different ways than most people. Sara always gets it, though.

Gray tentatively pokes her head around the corner. Her eyes immediately find Slate’s as she comes all the way into the room and she waves at him with a little smile. “Hi.”

Slate offers a half-smile and nods. She looks good with the contacts in. The brown suits her. “Hey.” He stands and walks to the door. “Ready to go?”

Gray nods. “Yep.” She meets Slate in the doorway and bids farewell to Sara and Jason.

As they walk out together, they hear Sara and Jason in chorus. “See you later! Have fun!”

Slate leads Gray quietly back down the dirt path and toward the main street that leads into town. After a moment, Gray asks, “Where do you usually run?”

“Sometimes I shift and take a couple laps around our land, but most of the time I go out to the paved road to the city, where we’re going now.”

Gray nods and the silence returns. Slate doesn’t know if she can feel it too, but a certain peace and stillness seems to be overtaking them. Slate breathes deep and enjoys the freshness of the air outdoors. Slate was worried Gray would want to talk while they ran, but she seems to understand his need for quiet, and he is endlessly grateful.

When they reach the road, Slate stops and looks at her sideways for a minute. Eventually, he warns her, “I like long runs. If you get done or too tired, let me know. Okay?”

Gray lifts a brow and smiles. “I figured you did. I do a fair amount of running myself, just on four legs. Don’t slow for me, I’ll keep up. Do your normal thing.”

Slate examines her for another moment, before nodding. It will definitely take a little getting used to, but he hopes he’ll get the peace and quiet out of this run that he needs.

By the time they finish, it’s 8:30 and they’ve been out for more than two hours. He feels pleasantly sweaty and loose. Gray seemed to hold her own pretty well. His mind doesn’t feel as empty as it usually does, but it’ll work for today. He’s dreading what’s to come though. His usual routine is to go home and get clean and have absolutely no more interaction for the rest of the day. Sometimes Asher comes over and sits down to watch a show with him or read, but generally they stay quiet. He has no idea what Gray expects from him now.

When he slows and puts his hands on his hips to catch his breath, Gray does the same. For a few minutes, there’s just heavy breathing, then Gray touches his arm lightly. He raises his eyebrows at her and she smiles, still panting. “Thanks for letting me come. Can we do this again next week?”

Slate cocks his head. She always finds a way to surprise him. “Okay.”

Then he walks her home to the Holt house where she’ll be staying the night and they say a silent goodbye before he goes home to shower and enjoy the peaceful air that stays with him.

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