Tuesday, January 6th, 2026
Ruben squeezed, digging his fingers deeper into soft flesh. He squeezed, pressing the wriggling and thrashing harder into the ground with his knee. He squeezed, crushing the pain with with his flattened brow and lips.
And his chest heaved. And liquid fire burned outward from his shoulder. And his heart battered raggedly against his ribs.
And then Hector’s screams calmed into stifled growls into silence. He stared up, pupils narrowing to slits, his breath thinned in his seized throat and between his teeth.
The fire only spread, like the static white pressing in at the edges in Ruben’s vision.
His fingers twitched and his arm shook and jerked.
Too-cold sweat crawled down his too-hot face.
And then he released Hector and stepped away, swallowing his gorge with a weakening throat. Hector slowly rolled to his paws, staring intently at Ruben. Ruben stared back, despite his twitching eyelids.
Hector had gone for his right shoulder. His dominant side. It’d taken Ruben too long to bring Hector down, and then to make his grip feel like a promise.
“Home,” Ruben commanded firmly.
Hector shook himself off, briefly unfolded and then resettled his wings, then took off at a lope.
Ruben’s nerveless feet turned and stumbled towards the hospital.
He almost made it through the doors. Instead he stumbled against the wall, doubled over, and heaved everything he had onto the concrete. Then he tipped.
And then he woke up.
The pain was gone. The twitching was gone. He felt feeble still, though. And shaky.
And he smelled barf.
“Ruben.” Alvaro was leaning over him, calm. The scent of the rosebush drifted over the more sour smells. “The venom had reached your heart long before you’d gotten here. I almost got to you too late.”
Warmth bloomed up the back of Ruben’s skull. He swallowed, trying to keep his face calm.
“This is the fifth time you’ve come in poisoned.” Alvaro paused, offering an apologetic smile. “I’m going to break our agreement. I’ll take you home and talk to your mom, alright?”
Alvaro gave him a hand up. Ruben took it, rising unsteadily to his feet. He tried not to let Alvaro steady him as he walked, but his watery knees just wouldn’t cooperate. Wordlessly Alvaro kept him upright. His shirt was wet, barfy, with bits stuck to it, clinging to his chest and side.
That was it, then. Mom wouldn’t just let that go. Not that he wanted her to, it’s just…
Mom put her glasses on the top of her head. Then she looked at them straight on, expression flat.
“Ruben. Galen. Your father is dead.” She waited. They waited. Suspended. “Dovilė asked me for permission to shoot him, because she didn’t trust him not to hurt us, either voluntarily or involuntarily.”
Something went very still in Ruben. Beside him, Galen was quiet, trying to figure out how to feel.
Hector was gonna die.
The door opened before them. Alvaro’s hand guided him down the central pathway, framed by desks and the people at them, drawing, writing, chattering. Pens and pencils, paper, measuring tape, scattered from desktop to desktop.
They went up the stairs on the other side of the room.
Hector was gonna die.
Ruben sat, waiting. Mom entered just a couple minutes later, setting down her bookbag and unstrapping Leliana from herself. Leliana was put in her chair, and Mom turned to face Alvaro directly.
Hector was gonna die.
“Ruben.” Mom hugged him, tight. “I’m glad you’re not dead.” Her words hummed through the hug. She took a few deep breaths, which pressed it tighter. Now, close to someone, he could smell his pukiness again.
“Me too.” He’d meant that to sound more… smartass-y. Instead it just sounded… flat.
She pulled away, eyeing him briefly, then took off her glasses and set them on the coffee table and eyed him again, with clearer eyes. “You ready to talk or do you want to get cleaned up first?”
Ruben shrugged a trembling shoulder, trying to swallow the bad taste in his mouth. “I mean, what’s there to talk about? I think it’s pretty fuckin’ clear what’s going to happen. We’re killing Hector because it’s the right thing to do, and that’s that.”
Mom shifted to face him more directly. “Actually, right now I’m a little more concerned about this having already happened four times previously without a word from you. Why?”
Ruben turned his gaze off to the side. “I dunno. I didn’t want to worry you?” No. That was stupid, and a huge crock of shit. If he didn’t want to worry her he wouldn’t be messing around with a venomous, man-eating monster in the first place. “No. I mean.” Why didn’t he tell her? Other than the fact it was nothing but bad. But bad didn’t… matter. Mom could handle bad. “I guess… I guess I didn’t want us to put down Hector.”
“Well… that helps to know, but I meant more why did it happen four times?” She paused. He could feel her eyes on him still, but he couldn’t meet them. “Ruben, why are you willing to risk your life more than once to train Hector?”
Something went very still in Ruben. He searched for an answer on the tabletop, but nothing made sense.
“Is it because you love him?” Mom prompted, gentle.
Love. Ruben put Hector in the same space as Mom, as the others. Nothing matched.
“No, I guess I don’t.” That admission made him feel… hollow. Ruben continued to stare, groping for something. Anything.
“Was Victor important to you?” Mom suggested. “Hector came from him, after all.”
“No.” Then why did the guy dying affect him? “I dunno.” Ruben rubbed the back of his hand, feeling the tendons under his thumb. “Maybe.” He continued searching. “I mean, not like I wanted to cry when he died. And I wasn’t… pissed at Dovilė for killing him or anything. Not like I was for…” The memory rang through him as if he were a bell. It made him feel all of the very edges of himself. They felt… thin. “For Lance.”
No, Victor definitely didn’t fit in Lancespace. That thought was… comforting.
Mom kept quiet, waiting.
“But…” That was all that was coming up. “I dunno. It still mattered. At least a little.” He wrinkled his nose. Why the fuck did it matter, anyway? “I get why she did it.” He paused. For some reason a rock sat, hard and full and cold, right in his guts. “It was the right thing to do.” He looked up at Mom. “Why the fuck is he my father, anyway?”
Mom took in a breath and her eyes flickered. She started to speak, and then stopped. She looked to the tabletop, putting her words together.
The rock grew alongside the silence.
“What kind of answer do you want, Ruben?” she asked, finally, her words halting. “Do you want to know why I chose him as a sexual partner? Why I got pregnant? Do you want to know what I saw in him?”
None of those were quite right. But… but he still wanted to know. “All of it, I guess.”
She shifted again, and straightened, gathering herself. “I was… in an incredibly isolated position, as the only mortal among children of gods, as the mentor and the mother and the instructor for all of them.” Her response was slow at first, but quickly gained momentum. “As important as it was for me to be there, and as much as I wanted to be there, I also couldn’t leave—not because anyone was forcing me to stay, but because there would be no return to my old life, not really. Because, at that time, there was no one who would ever possibly understand… well, anything I’d experienced. And likewise… though I could accept it… I couldn’t understand anything my kids were experiencing. So at times it was incredibly lonely. Victor was very attractive, very magnetic, and very… visceral. And he approached me at a particularly lonely time. So it was very easy to get caught up in the escape, and the feeling of connectedness, that sex provided.”
Then there was a pause. She thought over her words, eyes flicking over the tabletop.
It made sense. In retrospect, Ruben realized he’d almost expected that answer, or one like it anyway.
Then Mom gave him a direct, intent look. “Ruben, I want you to understand that I love you, and I need you to tell me if the next answer bothers you, okay?” A corner of her lips quirked up wryly. “A promising start, I know. But it’s important.”
Ruben nodded and took a breath, spreading out to all his spaces to catch what might come up, bracing himself.
“I didn’t intend to get pregnant. I was on birth control at the time.”
Shit, that was all? Ruben looked around. “Wait, why would that bother me?”
Mom looked him over a bit. “Because it might’ve made you feel unwanted.”
“You didn’t intend to get pregnant with Leliana either. Carmen didn’t with Summer. And Aida didn’t. But, like… you and Carmen decided to stay pregnant.” Ruben shrugged a shoulder. “Obviously you wanted me to be born, at some point.”
Mom smiled. Then she grinned, and rubbed his head. And then gave him a hug.
Ruben didn’t know what the fuck that was about, but whatever. Hugs were nice. He liked hugs.
When she pulled away, she seemed a little more relaxed. “As for what I saw in him… well.” She took a moment to think, eyes down. “I think he did in fact love me, or at least his idea of me. Which got closer and closer to me every time we actually talked. And he wanted so much to be a part of a family. He just didn’t have much of a frame of reference.” She looked up again. “There was… humanity there. Vulnerability. He wanted it to come out, sorely. So I decided to do what I could to… help him figure out how to let it.” She smiled a little. “It even worked on occasion.” After a moment, her smile began to fade. “Not to linger on ‘what ifs,’ but… if there’d been more time…” She stopped, the last of her smile gone to favor thoughtfulness. She looked at Ruben. “To be honest, in a lot of ways I think he could’ve become more like you.”
That felt… really good, next to the hug. His gut didn’t seem quite so… rocky anymore. And Victor was finally in the right space.
Something went very still in Ruben.
I’M GONNA KILL HIM!
He squeezed, digging his fingers deeper into soft flesh. He could feel the blood pulsing underneath, fluttering.
I’M GOING TO KILL HIM.
The kitten looked up at him. Reflected in his slitted eyes was death.
I’m going to kill him.
The little body relaxed. The pulse slowed. Ruben was holding acceptance now, between his tightening fingers.
It started with a shiver. Then it spread like a chill, turning him hard, inside and out.
He understood now.
“I have to keep training Hector.”
This time Mom went still. “To what end, Ruben? How many times do you have to nearly die?”
He looked at her, steady. “That doesn’t matter.”
She stared at him, bewildered. “It matters to me, Ruben. It matters to your brothers, to Jeff and Abel, to Alvaro—to your whole family. To everyone who’ll make it back.”
All was quiet in Ruben. Frozen. Clear.
“The other manticore kittens were put down. Victor was put down.” He didn’t look away. “We put down Hector… I’ll be next.” Said aloud like that… it felt more and more like a fact. “If I train him, then I at least have a chance. And if he kills me, then Dovilė won’t have to.”
Mom was silent. (Nearby Li-Li kicked, bouncing in her chair. From below rose the low murmur of commotion, the shuffling of papers, the scraping of chairs.)
No denials. No protests. No words.
Tightness spread from around her eyes, knotting her brows. Her throat hollowed, her breath caught. Her lips twisted, parted, as she sought something, anything to say.
But she knew he was right. And her heart was breaking. Ruben could see it all in her face.
Something sliced through him all at once, sudden and sharp. It spread outward, feeling like liquid fire, melting the crystallized hardness he’d been. A vise cinched around his chest, his vision watered.
Gods, he was a fucking monster.
“I’m sorry, Mom.” His voice came through thin from his seized throat. “I’m sorry.” And then he kept saying it, the words dripping like water from icicles dying their slow sunlit death.
She brought her hand to her mouth. Tears spilled down her cheeks. She shook her head, then pulled her hand away. “No, Ruben—no, no, no.” She pulled him close, wrapped him in her arms, pressed her cheek into him. “It’s not your fault.”
They squeezed, heartbeat to heartbeat. Crying quietly, trembling.
And then they relaxed. Their pulses slowed. They held acceptance now, between their parting embrace.