Before the Fall

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Chapter 8

The young boy in the arms of...of him--

(Compartmentalize, Gray, she tersely tells herself. This is not what you came for. Focus, focus.)

The young boy takes one look at Gray and can’t contain the gasp that escapes him. “Gray,” he breathes.

And though Gray is more perceptive than most, she can’t tell the depth of the word. Certainly her energy recognizes the barest hint of that other in the boy, but Gray can’t tell if the other brought the word to the boy’s lips or if it was just the guileless reaction of a young boy seeing unnaturally colored eyes.

Only then, when her gaze is ripped from him--who is he? why is he? what is he?--does she realize she has taken steps from her spot. She counts her breaths for a moment--inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale--and calmly lowers herself back into a sitting position, reclaiming stoicism. Neither aggressive nor submissive. Every movement purposeful, calculated, controlled.

“Good evening, friend.”

It comes from the father--it must be--the one who passed on the blue eyes to most of his children. The resemblance is strong between each member of the family. Sara and Asher have the same face, the one more feminine than the other. The youngest and that…that him have the same structure. Gray can see that once the softness of youth leaves the youngest, he’ll have a jaw as strong as his oldest brother. The one with the glasses is who takes most strongly after his father. The glasses are a peculiar sight, one that Gray has some immediate theories on. Sage seems to be a mix, maybe taking more after his mother, curiously not present.

Gray inclines her head to the father, a greeting of her own.

“I understand that I have something to thank you for.”

Gray whuffs, a neutral acknowledgement. Then she lifts her head and sniffs the air. She smells tangy copper, spots the bit of red dribbling down the youngest’s arm. The way he cradles it hurts Gray’s heart. It’s always worse with the children, especially the humans. Their hearts and bodies are so tender.

“It is also my understanding that you requested this communion,” the father continues, undeterred.

Gray flicks her ears and sweeps her tail across the grass twice. Her vision unwillingly drags back to that child with the scraped arm. His eyes are watery, he’s probably scared and confused as well as in pain.

Gray drags her attention away from the boy and sees that the father’s eyes are narrowed at her, considering. He breaks through the crowd and stands slightly in front of his family. “Would you like to meet my children?”

Gray blinks, tilts her head. The family’s father begins, “This is my family. You may call me Alpha Atwood. My oldest is--” Alpha Atwood cuts himself off, and takes a moment just to meet Gray’s eyes. The two of them come to some understanding, and he lets go of formalities in favor of efficiency. “But that’s not who you want to meet, is it?”

:::::

Slate, usually so observant, only peripherally makes sense of the interactions with the wolf and his father. There is something about this wolf that just demands his attention. He prides himself on his discipline, but this time he just can’t control himself. It feels like some force is trying to tell him something, but he just can’t hear it. It’s like what Asher told Slate once, about bond communicating. With Slate, the boundaries, the possibilities, are endless--if Asher can’t find words to express himself, he just balls up his swirling thoughts and emotions and throws them to Slate and he’ll be able to understand. But with other people, Asher will occasionally forget himself and speak freely as if he were with Slate, and it’s like Asher is speaking but they just can’t hear him. They don’t have the receptors Slate has for Asher.

Later he can sort that feeling out, but right now he just needs to be present, so he physically shakes his head to rid himself of the swirl of confusion. Refocusing, Slate hears his father begin to introduce Sara, but then some sort of communication happens between Alpha and the wolf that makes him stop short. The unspoken communication frustrates him, because normally he would be so tuned in, he would read between the lines with ease. But right now his focus is all over the place and he feels like he’s missed paragraphs of dialogue with every shift of posture that he missed.

“But that’s not who you want to meet, is it?” Slate hears his father say.

Alpha then turns behind him and beckons Slate forward. If he was thinking clearly, he would have passed Raven off to his sister for safety, but he wasn’t. He steps up to stand equal with his father, Raven in tow.

“Me?” Raven whispers, looking at their father.

Slate only has a moment to be taken aback before the wolf barks and take two careful steps forward. And that Slate understands. Raven looks at his father with question in his eyes, and when he receives permission, he looks for secondary confirmation with Slate.

“Yeah buddy, you,” he whispers.

Stay with him, Alpha sends to his oldest son with the utmost trust.

Slate takes a few careful steps forward, grip on Raven tight. The wolf lowers her head, the barest show of submission. Though human, Raven has grown up around werewolves and knows their body language. He wiggles around in Slate’s hold until his brother releases him. Raven grips Slate’s hand tightly once his feet are on the ground, but that’s his only sign of uncertainty.

No thought for tact or how he would even get an answer, Raven asks, “Why are your eyes gray?”

Slate swears he sees a smile in those stormy sky eyes. The wolf’s response is to carefully lower herself to the ground until she’s lying down, belly to the grass, and lower her head in a further show of submission.

Raven cocks his head, but is secretly delighted that this big wolf is lowering herself for him. Dragging Slate along as he goes, Raven walks forward until he’s within an arm’s length of the wolf. This close, Slate sees the softness of the wolf’s coat, threads of red and brown, white around the muzzle, and of course those deep gray eyes. Slate wonders if they had always been that way, or if they had once been a deep, textured brown, or maybe crystal toned blue. Slate also thinks neither would be able to capture the same depth as the color-bled shade they are now.

The wolf crawls on her belly the remaining inches until she’s close enough to nose around Raven’s chin. He giggles, but doesn’t shy away. He lifts his hand as though he wants to pet her fur, but becomes unsure at the last moment and looks up at Slate. Unexpectedly, Slate gets the wolf’s full attention as well. For once, he doesn’t think before he acts.

Slate kneels down until he’s nearly face to face with the wolf and reaches a hand out and pauses. When she leans forward in acquiescence, he smooths the short hairs of her head back and says quietly to Raven, “She’s soft. Want to try?”

Raven giggles in nervousness and lifts his arm again, this time his hand reaching its destination. But at the last moment, his scrape bumps against her muzzle and he gasps in pain. Slate, having seen the whole interaction, just puts a comforting hand on the back of his neck, but behind them, Forrest growls.

In response, the wolf backs up just a pace or two and flattens her ears as if to prove her innocence. Still, Forrest makes it halfway across the clearing before his father can grab hold of him. “Forrest, calm,” he growls back. Then more gently, “Trust your brother.”

The wolf huffs, getting Slate’s attention. They meet eyes. The wolf flicks her eyes to Forrest and back. Slate’s brows furrow. She does it again. Then Slate realizes she’s not looking at Forrest, she’s looking around the whole circle. Still crouched, Slate pivots on the balls of his feet from his crouch just enough to beckon the group over with a tilt of his head. “Come, see.”

Sara pulls Jason over by Slate right next to the wolf with no hesitation. Jason seems calculating, but having full trust in his wife. Slate’s father, however, has to do some coaxing with Sage and Forrest. Sage, having been unconscious that first night they met the wolf, is still wary of the large predator who has power enough to get inside his head. Forrest just hasn’t had enough time as the rest of them have to reconcile with the fact that there actually is a magical wolf in the forest.

The wolf seems to look around the circle as though to make sure everyone has full vision of the encounter. Then she whuffs at Raven, who understands her unspoken beckoning. He giggles nervously again, then laughs fully when the wolf licks a big stripe up the side of his face. “Ew, gross” he laughs but doesn’t pull away like he would with one of his siblings.

Slate sees those eyes smiling again, and it makes the corners of his mouth lift just slightly. Sara looks over at Slate across Raven’s head and Slate doesn’t like the knowing look that just entered her eyes, like she’s just realized something he hasn’t.

Then Slate hears Raven make a sound of surprise and sees the wolf licking Raven’s bloody arm now. Raven lets her minister over him for only a moment before he tilts his head and makes a small noise. “Oh,” he says. Then he looks down at his arm and his eyes go wide. “You fixed it!”

“What?” Sara mutters. “Let me see that arm, buddy.” He proffers the requested limb and Sara examines it with interest. Turning his arm this way and that, she asks Slate. “He had a scrape here?”

Slate’s eyebrows raise. “Yes. It was bleeding,” he says factually.

Alpha Atwood’s brows almost meet in the middle. He kneels and says, “Come here bud, let me take a look.”

Raven seems to have already understood the situation, accepted it, and moved on, because he groans dramatically and says, “Okay, but I promise it’s all better. She fixed it, Dad.”

Brett Atwood’s eyebrows unfurrow and he huffs a short laugh. After a quick examination, he says, baffled, “Yeah, Ray, you’re right. She fixed you right up.”

Sage takes a trembling step forward and asks in an awed tone “Is that what she did to me?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” Sara grins. She seems delighted by the whole situation. To the wolf, “You really are a miracle worker.”

At that, the gray-eyed wolf stands and steps around Raven until she’s right in front of Sara, a little taller than waist height. Sara squints at the wolf, tilts her head. She mutters, “What are you trying to tell me, wolf?” Curiously, the wolf licks Sara’s hand and bumps her torso with her head, but Sara is at a loss. “What...I don’t understand.”

All in a moment it clicks with Jason. “Sara...Sara, I think she wants to heal you,” he breathes.

Sara barks a surprised laugh. “Is that supposed to be a jab? Do I look like I need healing to you?”

Jason’s eyes flick between his wife’s. He shrugs minutely more with a tilt of his head than with his shoulders. “If you asked me a minute I would have said no, but our friend seems to say something different.”

“But I’m not hurt,” Sara insists somewhat hysterically. Slate knows Sara understands very well what Jason is intimating, what he thinks the wolf can do, what the wolf can help Sara do, but she’s too scared to get her hopes up.

Brett Atwood puts the pieces together just a moment after Jason. He doesn’t get all the details of Jason and Sara’s struggles--he can guess Slate probably gets let in on more of the details than anyone else--but he knows how hard the last four years have been. Considering his late wife’s experiences, the struggle his daughter has had with pregnancy terrifies him. If this wolf can help, he will do anything to make that happen. “Sara,” he says calmly. “You’ve seen this wolf heal your brother from near fatal wounds. If she’s saying she can heal you, I have no doubt it can happen.”

Sara stares at her father with wide, scared eyes. She looks to her husband, whose eyes are only earnest and hopeful. Then she looks down to meet the wolf’s eyes and bows her head in submission. “I am already in your debt forever for saving my brother, I have no room to ask anything of you. But if you offer your gift to me a second time...I swear you will never go another day without shelter, without food, without anything else you desire.” Lifting her head, Sara says, “I would do no less for a sister.”

The wolf bows her head in return. Then she takes three purposeful steps backward and lifts her head, reaching up like she can taste the stars, and she howls.

Even to those of them with no touch of the magic, it feels like the ground shakes beneath them. There’s something in the growl of the wolf’s voice that hits every nerve ending in their bodies, sinks into their bones.

Little Raven, little six-year-old human Raven, recovers immediately and opens his mouth to howl. Awoo! Awoo! Awoooooo!

The wolf licks a stripe up the side of his face again, and uses her whole body to howl once more with her tail flicking back and forth mesmerizingly.

Then Sara goes to stand at the wolf’s side and buries one hand in her fur before opening her mouth and throwing her head back in a howl, as does Jason, then Forrest and Sage, until just the Alpha and Slate are left quiet. Slate closes his eyes and just breathes in the magic of the night, and his father watches him.

Brett wants to capture this moment in his mind. He doesn’t take his eyes off of his first son as he breathes with his eyes closed. It takes Brett back to that moment when he felt that power suddenly fill him for the first time, the anticipation of a whole new life to come. When he happened to turn his head just right and meet eyes with the woman he would soon recognize as his True Mate.

Finally Brett watches Slate open his eyes, lift his head to the sky, and howl that same earth shattering howl that flowed from their gray-eyed friend.

When Slate howls the first time, it feels like that little spark of something within him that he always attributed to Asher awakens and flows through him. He howls again, and reminds himself of that beautiful celestial howl that drew itself out of the auburn coated she-wolf on that first night. The howl that Asher would have called a discourse between her and the moon. Slate gets a taste of that in his own right.

He howls again, only this time it’s a duet, a whole symphony where the only two instruments are his howl and his...his True Mate’s howl.

There’s one slow motion moment where his blue-green eyes meet those color-bled eyes and they have a mutual understanding of an inexorable truth. Unable to tear his eyes away even if he wanted to, Slate has a front row seat to the cinema that happens in those eyes, a tragic black and white feature.

Their howls echo in the forest as their eyes meet, and hers widen infinitesimally and fear flashes through her eyes, fear, terror--horror. She backs up quickly, dislodging Sara’s hand from her back without noticing, her eyes never leaving Slate’s. As the horror dies in her eyes, it gives way to grief and her next howl seems to shred her throat in the most heart wrenching demonstration of emotion that he’s seen in four years, and before that, since his mom. In the next moment, that echoing howl is the only part of her that remains with them in the forest.

She’s gone.

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