Before the Fall

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Chapter 40

Gray breathes through the pain in a practiced rhythm, compartmentalizing the pain in its own box in the corner so she can focus on other things. She has just healed Forrest--she and Slate have just healed Forrest--and she realizes one of her hands is still wrapped up in one of Slate’s. Her eyes trace the path from their point of connection, up his arm, and stop at his face. He and Asher are staring at each other, having some sort of mental communication Gray can’t parse out through the intrusion of the little box of hurt in her body.

Slate starts saying something to Forrest, smiles at him so kindly, relief evident. Gray just sits and holds Slate’s hand and tries to process. Slate can...Slate can heal with her. For her entire life thus far--and for the rest of her life, she’d thought--there had been this fantastical thing about her that was different from any other human or werewolf ever, that she knew of. There was something about her that nobody could ever understand or relate to or empathize with, because no one could feel what she felt, do what she did. But Slate has gone and turned all that on its head.

Now there is someone who can do what she can do. Someone who can understand. For the millionth time, Gray realizes exactly why the moon has chosen him for her. Whether she deserves him or not, there are so many things tying the two of them together, so many shared experiences. He has offered her space to speak her mind, has taught her that there are people who really will just accept her for who she is and not what she can do. He’s taught her that there are good men in the world who know how to treat women with kindness, something she’d rarely seen under the thumb and influence of her father.

He has done so much good for her. He is so good for her.

Gray thinks there might be a few things she can help him with as well. He takes care of her in his own small ways, and she is learning how to take care of him, little by little. Gray and Sara are alike in that they need someone to care for as much as they need someone to care for them. And Gray thinks it’s about time someone taught Slate that he has value just for who he is and not what he does as a pack leader or a brother. She’ll find a way to teach him his identity doesn’t need to be those things. He can just be Slate, like she can just be Gray.

Then there starts to be an itch in the back of Gray’s mind, a sort of buzzing.

Slate turns to look at her, then at their joined hands with furrowed brows, like he can feel it channeling through her and into him. Gray looks back at him and frowns. Without letting go of him, Gray stands and starts to look through the crowds, standing on her tiptoes to see over heads. Slate stands next to her, keeps them connected. Seconds later, Slate cocks his head like he’s listening to something, so Gray pricks her ears as well. All she can hear is general commotion, but it’s likely Slate has been able to pick someone out based on the fact that he doesn’t recognize the voice as one of his packmates.

Slate turns his head to look left, listens carefully, then looks back at Gray. “Someone needs your help.”

Gray frowns, but nods at him. “Lead the way.”

Slate squeezes her hand and pulls her along, back to navigating through throngs of people. This time, she notices people looking at their joined hands with raised eyebrows and surprise, but pleasantly she notices that none of them look disappointed or disapproving of it.

Just as they break through another group, Gray hears a woman crying. “Excuse me? I need help, I just, can you find the-the wolf for me? My daughter needs help.”

When Gray first sees them, she registers immediately that the family of three is two-thirds human. A human mother and daughter--the latter looking wobbly and walking with a cane--and a boy, looking like he’s near Aria’s age. Mid-teenage years.

Quietly, Gray clears her throat and gestures at the family. “I heard you were looking for me?”

The mother meets her eyes and exhales deeply. “Are you the healer? I thought…” she falters, “I thought she--you--had gray eyes?”

Gray smiles reassuringly. “I do. Contacts are a pain,” she winks at the little girl.

The girl stays solemn faced and moves closer to her mother. The boy seems to be fixated on Slate for some reason. The mother addresses Gray again. “Oh thank goodness, I thought, well, to be honest I thought Silas had been driving himself mad chasing a dream, a fictional healer. But you can...you can help my daughter?”

Gray looks between the mother and daughter, the former hopeful and the latter suspicious. “I...maybe. What’s your name and what is your injury?” she asks the daughter.

“Evelyn,” she says quietly. “My leg. I was...I was hit by a stray bullet when I was little.”

Gray winces. This will not be so easy. “Well, if the injury happened too long ago, your development was probably impaired. I can’t heal that, but if there’s still damage, I can heal it.”

The mother swallows thickly. “She had acute compartment syndrome. Some of the muscle and tissue is dead. A few nerves were damaged.”

Gray blinks and tries not to outwardly react. That’s not good news. In reality, Evelyn is incredibly lucky to still have her leg. “I will...do what I can. But you should know, I can’t promise you anything, okay?”

Evelyn and her mother both nod

Gray nods back and releases Slate’s hand, finally. She kneels on the ground and gestures for Evelyn to do the same. “It will be easier this way.” And it will be a lot less noticeable when Gray’s leg loses strength and feeling.

Evelyn lowers herself carefully to the ground and her mother and brother flank her on either side. While they all get situated, Gray smiles kindly at the mother. “What’s your name? And your son? You have beautiful children,” she says honestly.

The woman smiles shakily. “I’m Nina and this is David,” she brushes a hand over his hair as he says it. Weirdly, David still hasn’t taken his eyes away from Slate. His expression is suspicious, almost stormy with it.

Gray nods and smiles again. “It’s nice to meet the three of you. Now, may I touch your leg, Evelyn?”

The girl inhales sharply, but nods anyway. As Gray touches her hand to Evelyn’s skin, she feels Slate placing a hand on the back of her neck. The sudden reminder of her own lack of being alone makes Gray have to blink back tears. She shakes her head and starts slowly drawing pain away from young Evelyn. She has...doubts about how much she can help

She inhales and exhales slowly and feels an ache slowly grow in her leg, some numbness occurring. Slate shifts his weight next to her and she knows he feels it too. She wonders if he’s the reason she’s actually managing to heal this girl.

A few breaths later, Gray looks up and releases Evelyn’s leg. When her gaze shifts to the right, she sees that Nina isn’t breathing as she stares at Evelyn. “Okay, Evie,” she finally breathes, “how do you feel?”

Evelyn’s eyes haven’t torn away from Gray since she started pulling away the old hurts. Her eyes are as wide as saucers, and it looks like an unwilling smile is starting to tug the corners of her lips up. It’s striking on her solemn face. “I think...I think it worked,” she says.

Nina quickly gets to her feet and takes Evelyn’s hands. “Up, up, let’s see you.”

Evelyn lets herself be tugged up and tentatively shares her weight between both legs and takes a few steps. It looks awkward, but Gray thinks that’s probably more because her body has learned to compensate for the loss of most functioning in one leg and it will have to relearn to use both. Evelyn starts laughing and she throws herself into her mother’s arms. “I can walk, I can walk!”

Nina dissolves into sobs and lets Evelyn happy cry into her shoulder. “Oh baby, I’m so happy.” She releases her daughter with one hand and reaches out toward David. “Come here, Davie, come celebrate with us.”

David’s head turns sharply away from Slate and back at his mother. “Don’t call me that.”

Nina blinks and her smile fades some. “Okay, okay. I’m sorry, David.”

David huffs and works his jaw like he’s frustrated about something. He reluctantly walks into his mother’s arms and buries his face into Evelyn’s hair for a moment before returning his stare to Slate, over his sister’s head.

All at once, David’s eyes go wide, his face takes on an air of fury, and he screams at Slate, “It’s you, it’s you! You were there that night! You blinded my dad. I almost didn’t recognize...don’t you know how different he became? You…” he trembles with rage. “You took him from us!”

With a terrible war cry, he pops his claws and launches himself at Slate, aiming right for his face.

:::::

Slate hears the boy...hears his words, watches his face, but he doesn’t process it. Then all the sudden he has a raging teenage boy trying to claw his eyes from their sockets. Slate goes to jerk away, but forgets he has a dead leg and stumbles awkwardly.

Slate has dodged enough that David’s claws just manage to swipe shallowly across his cheek bone and through one side of his lips, but then he’s on the floor and David...well, part of Slate thinks this is poetic justice. Slate was probably just about David’s age when he fought...his father. Silas. The little girl screaming...the wolf leaving him alive...the feral howling they’d heard that night…

It all lines up.

All in slow motion, David’s claws draw nearer to his face until suddenly, his weight is gone. Asher has come out of nowhere and saved Slate from the same fate he condemned David’s father to. Slate quickly gets to his feet, still a little off balance, and puts his hand on Asher’s back. Slate’s brother has his hands around David’s neck. Not choking, just holding.

“Ash,” he says quietly.

“He was about to kill you, Slate.”

“I bet you were the one to kill my father tonight, weren’t you?” David spits at Slate, seemingly unconcerned with Asher. Just all consumed by his rage.

Asher growls menacingly, but Slate digs his fingers into his shoulder to quiet him. Slate kneels so he can see David fully past Asher’s body. “David,” he says slowly. “I did not kill your father tonight. But you’re right.” David snarls. “I think I did blind your father that night. I don’t know how you managed to recognize…” Slate exhales carefully. “Okay, David, this is what we’ll do.”

“Slate!” Asher whips his head back at his brother. “What are you doing? Are you trying to compromise with the son of the man who has tried to kill you twice now?”

Slate reaches up from his crouch to squeeze Asher’s shoulder again, but otherwise dismisses him. “David,” he says again, “I did not kill your father, but I did scar him nearly ten years ago.” Slate breathes deeply. “I will let you do the same, and then you will go back to your life and protect your mother and sister the way that your father should have.”

“Don’t…” David chokes on a sob. “Don’t talk about him like that.”

Slate nods and leans closer to David. Slowly, keeping eye contact with the still furious teary eyed boy all the way, he lifts one of David’s hands. The hand stays limp in Slate’s, but it doesn’t matter. Slate will do it himself.

Slate brings David’s claws to his cheek, matches up each finger to the appropriate claw mark David had left on him already. When the claws meet his skin, David’s hand regains its strength and digs his fingers into the flesh.

Asher gasps and says desperately, “Slate stop. Stop, you don’t need to do this.”

Slate ignores him and lets the boy drag his claws deeply across his cheek, and jaw, through the corner of his lips. Claws scrape lightly across bone. Slate barely registers the pain. It just burns. It burns the way that night still burns in his memories. It burns like cruel justice. He hears the voices murmuring behind him vaguely like white noise. At least two other people are crying. He wonders absently how Gray is reacting.

Hopefully Slate can give David the closure Silas never had, so that he can move on and live a life unburdened by hate and pride and jealousy.

He welcomes the pain, loves it. Because it means this boy is healing.

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