Before the Fall

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Chapter 3

Chapter 3

Alpha Atwood runs a tired hand over his face as he drives himself and his small convoy back home. The weekend was good, productive. The visit for the Alphas was mostly routine, but the two packs each had physicians or scientists of one discipline or another who were interested in convening and sharing new findings. Their resident medic/chemist is Paige Long, a zealous, strong willed young woman with big dreams about the future of werewolf science, and Zander is her informal apprentice. Aria, his little sister, tagged along. Alpha Atwood can see the appeal of such a field, with so much to learn. Science and research centered around werewolves is a relatively new concept. Being such a secretive minority, it has been hard to make many strides. Much is actually still unknown about the population of werewolves beyond the United States. Communication between even the other countries in North America alone is close to nil.

As for America, Alpha Atwood has intimate knowledge only about the five other packs in the western region, as they meet four times a year. The rest of the United States packs keep in contact via technology of choice, but Alpha Atwood chooses not to pursue much else in the way of alliance.

But, as a simple man, Alpha leaves musings about the state of werewolf evolution and beyond to Paige and those of her stock. He’s too occupied with the here and the now to put brain power towards the when and why.

“How much longer?” Fourteen-year-old Aria Holt asks from the back seat.

“Aria, it will take however long it takes no matter how many times you ask,” her older brother remarks dryly. In the rearview mirror, Alpha can see him roll his eyes and his sister stick out her tongue in response. He can’t help but laugh at their bickering; it makes him miss his children, no matter that he had only been gone a week.

“Zander, I think you may have bigger problems when she gets home,” Alpha says mischievously.

Zander gives his alpha the side eye through the rear view mirror and asks slowly, “Why do you say that, Alpha?”

“Well,” Alpha grins widely, “there might just be one certain wolf of handsome parentage looking to make a move on a pretty girl.”

Zander rolls his eyes and a little smile tugs up the corner of his mouth as he shakes his head with amusement. Aria lifts her head and scoffs indifferently, but the little smile she hides tells something more true. “Sage is nice, Alpha. He’s fun to spar with and that’s it.”

Alpha smiles and shakes his head but leaves it at that. Some of the aloofness is just regular teenage insecurity, but there is something deeper that runs with Aria and her brother. Their story is muddled, and even Alpha Atwood doesn’t know the whole of it. What he knows from the two siblings is that they became unsafe in their original pack and had to relocate, ending up in an oversized pack closer to the middle region packs of America where they were left to their own devices. Packs like theirs, ones that grow too large, are often not naturally accumulated, rather a result of warring between packs. The Preston Pack, the one Zander and Aria migrated to, was full of corruption. They violently absorbed land and packs that were weaker and had resources the Prestons wanted. It’s a vicious culture to grow up in, and Alpha Atwood hates to think of those two sweet young kids--Zander the age of Forrest, and Aria just a year older than Sage--being exposed to that kind of depravity.

After only a few months of their relocation to the Preston pack, it collapsed because of infighting and power struggles. In response, packs in the larger surrounding areas, the Atwood Pack being a far one of them, united to legally--and illegally, Alpha thinks remorselessly--discipline the offenders and relocate the innocents who wished to have a new start. Zander and Aria were two of the wolves relocated to Atwood territory, and anyone in the pack would vouch for their integrity. They made the pack stronger and Alpha only wishes his wife could have met them. She would have loved them, and heaven knows those kids could do with a mother figure like Camille.

Alpha’s greatest wish for the two of them is to let go of the secrets of their past and free themselves from the torture of burying secrets. No one knows how they got to the Prestons, or where their family is. When the Atwoods first met Zander and Aria, Zander was an emancipated legal adult, and Aria...well, there was a lot of plausible deniability there, but officially, Zander had custody. Alpha hates to think of what had to have happened for two children, the two of them age sixteen and eleven at the time, to have need to flee from their family, their pack. No children should have to experience that kind of trauma. Camille would have known just how to speak to them, to help them.

“Hey Aria, looks like thirty miles to go. It’ll probably take us around forty minutes to get home,” Paige points out absently from the front seat.

Aria looks up from her phone and wrinkles her nose, mutters, “Okay, whatever.” Zander pinches her side. “Ow! Okay, okay. Sorry, I mean thank you, Paige.”

Alpha Atwood shakes his head in amusement. Paige can be a rather...polarizing person. You either love her or hate her, but she’s unapologetically Paige, that’s for sure.

Suddenly the phone rings through the bluetooth connection in the car. Alpha presses the answer button and speaks into the car. “Hey kiddo, I’ve got Paige, Zander, and Aria in the car with me.”

I figured,” comes Sara’s tinny voice. “But Dad--if you could come straight home and leave the administrative stuff at the office until later, that would probably be best.”

Alpha frowns. Slowly, “Okay, that’s not a problem. May I ask why?”

(Zander snorts quietly in the back. Sara has her father wrapped right around her finger)

There’s been some trouble here, we ran into something on patrol last night, but everything’s fine now.”

“Fine now?” Alpha asks with slight alarm. “There was a point in time when things were not fine?”

Sara sighs audibly. “Well yes, but we...well, it was handled.”

There’s a crease between Alpha’s brows now. “Is Slate with you? Are the kids okay? How’s the pack?”

Dad,” Sara asserts, “everything is fine. Slate is here with me at the house, we’re handling things together like we always do. We’re all staying at the house with the kids for a little while, and the rest of the pack was unaffected.

Alpha sighs. “Alright Sara, I trust you. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

Aright, thanks Dad. Love you.

Alpha sighs as the call goes dead. “Never a dull moment in the Atwood Pack,” he huffs.

Zander snorts and says under his breath, “Never a dull moment in the Atwood family.

:::::

Gray slips between painful consciousness and its slightly more favorable cousin, delirium. Her mind races thoughtlessly from here to there, but the majority of thoughts run marathons towards and around the four siblings she met in the woods.

Sara: slight, average height, but her countenance stood taller, shoulder to shoulder with the oldest of the three brothers. And what was his name anyway? What is his name? Gray replays the whole sequence over and over, wondering if there’s anything she missed, but nothing. What sticks out about him is those eyes. Those eyes probably crumble most every foe who dares to challenge them. That man carries a strength unspoken. Someone you’d die to have on your side, and who would kill you in a second if you were on the wrong.

And Asher. He stood slightly taller than his elder brother, but with a slimmer build. And somehow Gray did know he was the younger of the two. There was a certain deference he offered his dark haired brother with the striking eyes. She hopes dearly that he isn’t blaming himself for any of it. She knows guilt. It’s her old friend, the one that follows her no matter how long or far she runs. And there was something between the two brothers...something that bonded the two men beyond blood. Something akin to the kind of something that allowed Gray to do what she could do.

And sweet, young Sage. He’s the one her mind goes to more than the others. She had gotten only glimpses of him as the healthy, lively young boy that he was before his body became more blood than skin. But she has those glimpses burned in her mind. He was scared, his world of safety and innocence was being ripped away from him more and more with every moment that passed. And yet there was an unspoken trust he had in his siblings. He stood clutching his sister’s arm, breathing hard as he watched in awe his older brothers fight with claws and fangs, exercising a certain power he had never seen from them before. That face, one of fear and trust, reminded her so painfully of someone she used to know.

How old would he be now? Is he okay, is he happy? How tall is he now, has he grown to look more like his mother or his father? Is she safe, is he taking care of her?

(The last thought is moot, she knows the answer. Of course he is. No ounce of doubt lingers in Gray’s mind about that.)

And then seeing that boy, so much like someone she knew once upon a time, laid out carelessly on the forest floor with agony in his eyes, before they flutter shut and his breathing becomes weak and labored as his heart tries to replace the blood gushing from his wounds--that should have been worse. But it wasn’t. Because Gray had the ability to right that wrong. So no, seeing that limp body was not the worst part.

It was the memory of that boy...that boy she left...she left him, she left...she had to leave, she had to, there was no other choice, there was no choice no choice…

And still in the back of her mind the thought lingers, Sara, something about Sara…

:::::

Sara digs a knuckle into a spot on her forehead in an uncharacteristic gesture the next morning, as though there was pain radiating from that spot. The circles under her eyes aren’t ones that come from just one waking night either. It’s rare for werewolves to feel any sort of lingering aches and pains, but Sara…

Slate shakes his head. He can’t follow that thought anymore. Not now. And besides, Slate thinks, Jason is here, he can fix it.

Jason is a blonde haired pretty boy who is somehow strong and gangly at the same time. He’s paradoxically a geek and a roman god in turns--not his words, his sisters’. More importantly, he is the man Sara gets to call her mate and husband. According to the many versions of the story Slate has heard from his sister, each one more embellished than the last, Jason fell in love with her the first time he heard her speak. The real story went something like this.

Like many werewolves choose to do, Sara had been homeschooling since before high school and consequently decided to get her BA in communications with a business minor through online courses as well. However, in her last year, there was one elusive class, a general education requirement of all things, that never had open slots online, so a very grumpy Sara was forced to go on campus. In her fourth year of university, she was forced to sit in with a bunch of loud, annoying freshmen in an auditorium with hundreds of people listening to the same boring lecture.

At one point or another, Sara lost all inhibitions and started making those snide, snarky comments under her breath that had been inherent to her personality since birth for her own enjoyment. And one day, this blonde limp noodle of a boy with cheekbones that could slice butter sat down next to her and stared at her the entire time, Sara swears. It’s like he thought I was pretty or something, she’d say with a proud smirk and a toss of her hair.

Finally, at the end of class, Sara asked bluntly, “So...how do you feel about older women?”

Jason spluttered and stuttered for long moments before Sara burst out laughing and slapped his arm. The story goes that Sara introduced herself--accurately--as a school senior and asked him out. It was only weeks later that Sara finally admitted that she was only twenty...she graduated high school early. So, Slate supposes, Sara is the older of the two, but by about a year and a half at most.

Now seven years later, Slate and Sara’s father still maintains and will always believe that Jason and Sara must have felt some small pull between them, a little sliver of the magic that happened between himself and their mom. Maybe not quite True Mates, but a little pull. Secretly, as Slate had heard from his sister one night when she was up til the early hours of the morning in pain, calling her brother for comfort, she remembers that faint pull, feels it a little every time Jason looks at her even now.

“Hey, how about we all just take it easy til your dad gets here, huh?” Jason suggests gently, squeezing his arm around his tired wife’s shoulders.

Sara exhales heavily and leans into her husband. “No J, we have to get our story straight before Dad gets here. Will you go upstairs and tell Forrest to get his butt out of bed, please? And check on Raven? He should still be sleeping.” She bares her teeth in a pleading smile.

Jason frowns and stares for a second before accepting that his headstrong wife will do what she wants regardless of what he says. “Alright, Sara. As you wish.”

Once all of his blonde haired lanky-bodied glory disappears around the corner, Sara faces Slate and claps her hands together. “So,” she drags out. “What in the holy heck happened last night?”

Slate does that laugh-thing where you just breathe extra air out of your nose and the right side of his mouth lifts. “Well from what we know, the story is that, in some freak combination of events, Sage managed to sneak out of the house last night, stumbled around til he found us, you had to shift to talk to him because he can’t communicate through pack bonds, rogues ambushed us, and then…”

Sara flops back and stares back at the ceiling. “Yeah. And then.”

Jason comes down the stairs first, speaking before he even rounds the corner into the bright living room. “Raven’s still sound asleep and I peeked into Sage’s room--Sage is asleep and Asher’s passed out still sitting in the chair next to him.”

Then Forrest comes tromping down the stairs and rubs his eyes before replacing his glasses. “Look, I already know I’m gonna get chewed out when Dad gets back, do I really have to go through this with you two?”

Slate exhales heavily and stands before Sara can get irrationally angry at Forrest for not understanding the gravity of what happened last night. “Yes. We do.”

The sleep starts to clear up from Forrest’s eyes and he frowns and cocks his head at the somber ambiance of the room. Slowly and obviously at a loss for words, he says, “Oh. Okay, what…?”

“It’s okay, we just have to know what happened last night. Dad will chew you out later.” Slate says with a neutral tone and forgiving stare.

Once they’re all sat down, Slate and Jason defer to Sara. With put-upon casual confidence she says, “Why don’t you tell us your version of what happened last night, and we’ll tell you ours.”

Nervous, Forrest rubs sweaty hands down the legs of his pajama pants. Sure, he may not have been the strictest babysitter, but Sage should have known better than to sneak out, right? It’s not all his fault. “Well,” he swallows, “the night was going well, I was hanging out with Raven, and Sage was doing his broody teenager thing in his room. Then I went to put Raven to bed and I came back downstairs to watch TV. After a while I realized Sage was being really quiet, unusually quiet, so I went up there to check on him in his room. Everything was pretty normal there,” Forrest winces, “except that Sage wasn’t in it. And the window was cracked. I only had about ten minutes to panic before Asher sent me that bond-message that you had found him. I’d guess he’d been out of the house for maybe twenty or thirty minutes.” He pauses. “What...what happened out there?”

Forrest was a unique member and the middle child of the family. Technically, both he and Asher were the middle two of the six of them, but the three oldest children were so close in age that Forrest really ended up in the middle by himself. More than that, he felt like a “broken” werewolf, because his eyes didn’t work. It may seem nothing out of the ordinary, even commonplace, to the human community for a person to have vision impairment and need glasses, but for a werewolf...well, it was rare. He’d been checked out many times by many doctors since he was three and they discovered his vision was not quite the same as his siblings. Because he felt like he didn’t belong in the werewolf community, Forrest spent much of his time with human friends--which was no problem, or, it wouldn’t be if it didn’t mean he felt rejected by his werewolf peers.

He’s a sensitive kid, though maybe Slate and Sara are the only ones who would call the nineteen-year-old a “kid” anymore. Forrest and Asher are similar in that way. Both more creative, more sensitive, more like their mom. Slate admires that, has wished many times he was more like them. He would give anything to carry on her kind, gentle, strong spirit.

For those reasons, Slate and Sara decide silently that Forrest doesn’t need to know the full extent of the happenings of the previous night. “Well,” Sara settles on with a halfway smirk to hide her true inner turmoil, “Sage is just as bad at tracking as we thought he was, the little bugger. But eventually he found us and we chewed him out pretty good, as you would say. We were able to make it home all okay though. Next time watch out for your brother a little more, okay?” The last is accompanied by a stern eyebrow. Their father will be able to drive the point home later, so she doesn’t worry too much about putting the fear of Dad in him.

“Yes,” Forrest breathes out, relieved. “Yeah definitely. Thanks guys.”

So the nearly twenty-year-old goes about his morning with a weight lifted off his shoulders, and Slate has no regrets.

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