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.
In a hospital room.
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. Wiping his face with a wet cloth. The scent of a 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 like this.” Alvaro paused, offering an apologetic smile. “I’m going to 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. His pants and underwear had caught it too, patting wet and cold against him with every step.
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 permission to kill him, because she didn’t trust him not to hurt us, either voluntarily or involuntarily. And she had to kill Cyril too, because he attacked her.”
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. Some eyes flicked over him, some silence spread, but then Alvaro smiled at them and they all went back to brain-controlled normal.
They went up the stairs on the other side of the room.
Hector was gonna die.
Ruben got a rag and went up to his room. Peeled his clothes off.
The door downstairs opened and closed.
His greeting faded into something else, muffled by the floor. Then Mom spoke again. Then Alvaro. It was all quiet, level. Deadly calm.
Hector was gonna die.
Ruben wiped himself down. Pulled on some dry clothes. Tossed his puke-y ones in the laundry basket. And the rag.
Below, the voices stopped. The door opened and closed again, followed by fading footsteps descending the stairs outside.
He came down to the living room.
Lili was being settled in her chair. She kicked her legs and beat her arms, bouncing in her chair and having a grand time of it.
Mom looked up. “Ruben.” She came close. Hugged him, tight. “I’m so glad you’re not dead.” Her words hummed through the hug, warm, and a little scared. She took a few deep breaths, which pressed it tighter.
“Me too.” He’d meant that to sound more… smartass-y. Instead it just sounded… flat.
She pulled away, hands on his forearms, eyeing him briefly, then pushed her glasses onto her head before eyeing him again with clearer eyes. “We need to have a talk. And soon. Do you need some time before we do?”
Ruben shrugged a 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 looked him over again. “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?” Mom’s hands slid off him. Crossed. 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…” Mom’s gaze dropped to the floor. “That helps to know.” She looked up again. “But I meant more why did it happen four other times?” She hung onto the silence. He could feel her eyes on him still. “Rube, 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 floor, but nothing made sense. “I don’t know.”
It was quiet a moment. Tight.
Then Mom took a breath. In… out. Moved to the couch.
This was gonna be a discussion after all.
Ruben moved with her, sat down next to her. Rubbed his finger over the knife-mark in the coffee table.
Mom leaned forward, elbows on her knees. Clasped her hands. “Is it because you love him?” she 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.”
That hui s gory? “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 or anything when he died. And I wasn’t… pissed at Dovilė for killing him. Or you for letting her. I was more pissed about Cyril, and that was because he’d rather fuckin’ die with that pendejo than live with us. It wasn’t at all like…” 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. “Like with Lance.”
No, Victor definitely didn’t fit in Lancespace. That thought was… comforting. He sure as fuck didn’t deserve to be there.
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 it happened.” He paused. For some reason a rock sat, hard and full and cold, right in his guts. “It was the right thing to do. Even if it meant Cyril had to die too.” He looked up at Mom. “Why the fuck is he my father, anyway?”
Mom took in a breath and her eyelids 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 was with him in the first place? Why I got and stayed pregnant? Why I tried to include him in our lives, make him a part of the family?”
None of those were quite right. But… but he still wanted to know. “Everything, I guess.”
“Okay.” She leaned forward, elbows on her knees. Clasped her hands. Gathered herself. “Really, the answer to all three is brain control.” She closed her eyes, crinkled her brows. Like she was in pain or something and trying to keep it down. Kneaded her hands. “I don’t know how true that is, just that it is true.” Mom opened her eyes, kept them on the floor. “Of course, there’s also the question of what kind of brain control was involved. Because love is a form of brain control too.” She was silent a moment, searching for more words. “That’s not to say that… that I was… completely lacking agency. Because I wasn’t. I have some responsibility. After all, this was not the first time I’d been in an unhealthy relationship, or even the second, and I’d spent a lot of time figuring out how to make better decisions before Victor came along.” She looked at him. “The truth is, Rube, it’s just a mess. And I’ve tried sorting it out, but it keeps changing the more I think about it. All I can do is tell you my side of the story. I’m afraid you’ll have to decide the rest for yourself.”
Damn. Okay. This was gonna be some heavy shit, then.
Mom took a breath in and straightened. Rested her hands in her lap. “I was… isolated, as the only mortal among children of gods, as the mentor and the mother and the instructor for all of them. As important as it was for me to be there, as much as I wanted to be there, I also remembered my old life. Friends and family that I’d unwittingly let go when I took up my job with what turned out to be a highly secretive and powerful cult. Even if I could go back, I knew it would be an uphill battle, trying to fit into something normal again. Among all my loved ones, there was no one who would ever possibly understand… well, anything I’d experienced. And likewise… though I could accept it, I didn’t feel like I could understand anything my kids were experiencing. I wanted so badly to connect with them that way but I didn’t feel like I was ever going to truly be capable of it. But I had to keep trying, just in case I could. Because they—all of them—badly needed that connection. All of them had lost their loved ones and had been betrayed by the people who took them in, and they had to learn what their superpowers meant to them and how to use them properly. So every time I felt like I’d failed one of the kids, in any which way, that drew attention to that gulf and made me feel lonelier. And then Victor came along.”
She stopped. Put her hand over her mouth, fingers splayed a little. Thought a moment.
“I hardly knew him, but he was attractive, magnetic, and…” she let a breath out, “intense. It was really distracting.” Mom rolled her eyes at herself a little. Shook her head. “But that was fine. I could deal with wanting him. I could deal with him wanting me. But when he told me that he saw what I was going through, how alone I was, told me he cared about me and admired me and wanted to help make it easier… I was overwhelmed. Didn’t know what to think. Then he kissed me and everything just,” Mom pulled up short. Inhaled as if she could draw the right word in with her breath. When she breathed out, the word that came out was, “Unraveled.” She hooked a hand on the side of her neck. “I mean… suddenly there was a connection just there waiting for me. And it was powerful. So I let myself be… seduced, I suppose. In more ways than one. And that was…” Mom leaned back and swiped her hands apart, “the biggest catharsis I’d ever experienced. It was incredible.” Her hands dropped back down. “I would say that was a poorly made choice, but even now, remembering what all that was like, I don’t think I’d be able to choose any differently. But also once I had a connection with him it highlighted connections I’d already made with everyone else. I wasn’t incapable, I could learn to understand. And the better I got to know him, about how he saw his superpowers, the easier it got to learn about my kids. On top of all that, he did try to help out at the school. Worked with me to arrange field trips. Tried to teach some of the kids about ways to use their own superpowers. Celebrated holidays with us.” Mom let out a breath, gaze traveling to the ceiling, as if tracking her memories. “Sometimes he was willfully ignorant, sometimes he was a jerk, sometimes he was inappropriate, sometimes he was outright dangerous. And he wasn’t very good at communication. But he had the experience I didn’t, he listened to me, his intentions were mostly good, and when he was there, he was there, 110%.”
Well, sort of.
The first three weeks, yeah, he could see it. Kinda. Victor was all up in his and Galen’s business, talking to them like him being their father meant that he was smarter than them. In Mom’s business too, saying some chyort about how much he loved her whenever she was a mess ‘cause of the fuckin’ siege, then sticking his tongue down her throat and his hand down her pants as if that would be the hug she needed. And in Carmen’s business, when she let him be, ‘cause she’d agreed to help him learn how to baby the right way. He’d take Hector out to “play” when Ruben didn’t want him to, and laughed it off when Ruben caught him until Mom told him to stop. Went with Galen for community service shit once. Tried to talk to Senbast about his gun, even. (Failed, ‘cause he acted like he was an expert and didn’t actually care to be proven wrong, but he tried at least.) Did the sitting down to dinner thing, and talking about his day.
But after that… Victor got that look. When he thought no one was paying attention, his eyes would trace Bakersfield wall. His whole body would be tight. He wouldn’t have much to say about his day. Made meaner jokes, and backed off from them even before no one laughed, like he already knew they were gonna be bad but he had to say them anyway.
And then he said he wanted to go fishing. In the ocean, 150 miles away, through monster territory. To support the family, he said. ‘Cause no one had cornered that market. And it’d give him a few days alone to clear his head, because being around so many people all the time, so much noise, was driving him a little crazy.
Maybe Mom let him go because it’d give her and everyone else a break. Maybe she didn’t notice him leaving before he’d left. There was the brain control, after all, and on top of all that she was always exhausted whenever he was around. And kinda loopy. And sore.
Whatever the case, that week was just fine. Mom got back to normal. Life went on.
And then he came back. With loads of fish, as promised. And that same in-everyone’s-business attitude. But two and a half weeks later, it started again. And then he was gone just a day longer. Then two weeks later and two days longer. Stealing a little more time in bits and pieces. Leaving after a fuckin’ tantrum when Mom told him she wanted to talk to him about it all. Just before Dovilė went to go shoot him.
Mom continued. “And it was nice—comforting, in a lot of ways—to be desired so… so ardently, even after I was sure I had no more surprises for him.” Mom thought over her words, eyes flicking over the tabletop. “Although I need you to know that the daily sex, the hours-long intercourse… that was by no means what I wanted. It was absolutely not worth the cost, and the only time I wasn’t angry about it was whenever Victor was there. I’m still really upset it hurt you and Galen and Sen.” She looked up at him. “And—forgive me for this side track, here—I’m really glad you said something when I started dating Dewayne.”
Yeah. Like he didn’t know that. “You already told me that a million times.”
A corner of Mom’s mouth quirked up. It wasn’t quite a smile. “And I’ll tell you a million more times because it gets truer every time.”
Ruben shrugged a shoulder. “It wasn’t even a big deal. I was just mad.”
Mom nodded. “I know. That’s why it matters.”
“Yeah, but… I knew it was gonna be different, because…”
Because Victor didn’t fit. Period. Anywhere. He forced every space wide open wherever he went to get what he wanted. And then kept leaving before he could do anyone the decency of filling the hole he’d made. So other stuff had to be filled in. Like Lili, who was only there in the first place because of him. And then Victor came back, tearing open more shit. Eventually it would be too much.
Joder, it already was the first time.
“Victor was a predator. Dewayne isn’t.”
Mom closed her eyes again. Dropped her chin. Kneaded her hands again. Then opened her eyes. “That’s… very true.”
Yeah. No fuckin’ wonder Dovilė shot him.
But that was too good for him. That vyperdych ought to have had his face rubbed in it first. He ought to have died knowing that he failed at pulling his own weight—that he was a burden even to the one person who loved him.
Mom looked back to him. Balled one hand into a fist, rubbed at it with her other thumb. “That doesn’t make the situation any more clear-cut. In fact, part of me dearly wishes it had. As… demeaning as that would’ve been, to both of us, it wouldn’t still hurt that… that I’m complicit in his death.”
No. No. He didn’t get to keep hurting her after he was dead. Fuck that guy with a cactus. Trajat’sya.
“You shouldn’t be. He doesn’t fuckin’ des—”
That wasn’t very nice to Mom. He was dead, after all. The brain control should be gone by now, right? Which meant that it was all her.
“Why does it hurt?”
Another not-smile curled her mouth, paired with what looked like a cringe of pain. “I promise I’m gonna answer but first I’m gonna give you a hug, okay?”
He was hard as a rock. And didn’t feel like getting any softer. “Okay. If you need to. But I’m not gonna be very huggable. If that’s okay with you.”
Mom let out a soft laugh. It sounded kinda choked. Like she was about to cry. “Yeah. That’s fine.” Then she wrapped him up. Hard. Curled her fingers lightly in his hair. Breathed against him for a bit.
When she eased, her voice was clear again. Steady. But she held onto him. Put her chin on his head.
“It hurts because by allowing Dovilė to shoot him I was giving up on his humanity. I was saying that him as a predator mattered more to me than him as a person. I was taking away all of his opportunities to grow and find his place in life, whether it had anything to do with being a part of our family or not.” She took another deep breath. “He wanted to be vulnerable. Badly. Just didn’t know how. Every time he was, it was always in one great big flood of jumbled words. Like he was daring me to try and destroy him but at the same time was also so scared of his vulnerability that he dropped it once he saw it. He took the massive risk of trusting me with everything and when push came to shove I ended up deciding that it wasn’t worth enough for him to even have the basic right of continuing to live.”
Except he hadn’t trusted her with everything. Clearly.
And… “‘Push came to shove’ because he made it. Because he decided that whatever you needed wasn’t as important as losing his shit, hurting a bunch of people, and leaving. Twice.”
“I know.” She hugged him tighter. Scritched his head a little. “That doesn’t really change how I feel. It only makes it hurt more.”
Well… yeah, alright. She wasn’t trying to make Victor out to be some kind of hero. She was just saying what she felt. “I guess that makes sense.”
At that, she pulled away, her hands lingering to give one last rub. “So.” She looked him up and down. “Why I had you.” Then her gaze slid to the side for just a moment. “Rube, parts of this might be hard to swallow.”
She’d already told him that. “Yeah. I know. Brain control.”
“That’s not the whole story.” She looked at him again. “I love you.” This wasn’t gentle or warm, like it usually was. This was hard. She was looking into him, direct, intent, like her eyes could bore that into his skin. “You are one of the few things I don’t regret about being with Victor.”
A fact. All clean, sharp edges. Focused entirely on him.
Oh. That’s what she’d meant.
“Okay, Mom.” It came out a mumble.
Eventually, she lifted her chin, took her eyes off him. Put them somewhere far away. “Long before I met Victor, I’d started taking the Pill.”
Uh… weren’t there supposed to be all kinds of pills?
She eyed him, tentative now, before he could say anything. Opened up a little. “It was an oral contraceptive. A kind of medicine which released hormones that prevented ovulation.” She was talking a little lighter now. Explaining. “I used to take it at the same time every day, because that’s how it was most effective. It had a less than 1% failure rate, if taken properly. Only about this big.” She pinched her thumb and index finger real close.
Oh. Right. There was some crazy shit back before the end of the world. But wait. Why bother with any kinda risk? “Why didn’t you just have Suze take care of that?”
Mom dropped her hand and let out a breath of a wry chuckle. “That was before she knew she could do that. She was still learning about herself.”
So it was like now. Except instead, now it was fuckin’ gross used condoms in the compost.
“Still. Those are pretty good odds. So when I found out that I was pregnant, I was shocked. And upset. Divya—one of my kids—had just died a month and a half before, suddenly and violently. It had been devastating. And I was not prepared to deal with something else so sudden and big, and so soon.” Mom leaned back against the couch again. “My first thought was what could possibly have gone wrong. Did I not take the Pill properly? Did Victor somehow have superpowered sperm? Were we having too much sex? Was this just the 1%? After going around in circles for a bit, I decided that, whatever it was, something had to change, and that I had to talk it over with Victor before taking any kind of action.” She sighed, deep. “I didn’t really go about it the right way. Victor was away at the time, so I left a message with Athena to let him know that we should talk once he got the chance. A silly one, because I’d lost too much sleep taking this seriously.” Mom shook her head. “I’d assumed he’d be in favor of terminating my pregnancy because he’d been so upset when he found out Aphrodite was pregnant.” Another curl came to the edges of her mouth. Another one of those not-smiles. “In any case, the moment he put the pieces together… well, that was where the discussion I’d wanted ended, really. He was… so thrilled. Ready to throw himself into having a family. With me. And assumed that I was thrilled too, because of the message I gave him.”
What the fuck did Victor even look like, thrilled?
Ruben had been there when Mom had told him about being pregnant with Lili. She’d been so tired. So serious. ‘Cause she’d been putting off this conversation for a while, ‘cause the siege had just ended and oh yeah don’t forget Lance was dead and there were new superpowered people and everyone was gonna go to the various Lands of the Dead so that everyone wouldn’t die in three years and everything was just all-around shitty. She’d tried to tell him that the family he wanted to be part of so bad would continue with or without him. That if he wanted to be part of it he had to actually work through his anger instead of wrecking shit, threatening people, storming away for an undefined amount of time, and coming back like none of that’d happened.
And he’d grinned. Like he had been grinning when he came back from the frost giant camp, covered in blood and bits, with the head of the one that’d brought him there stuck on a sharpened femur.
Then he’d said some shit about his sperm being strong swimmers. Like there was something special about his sex just because it got Mom pregnant. Like his sex being special was more important than what Mom was actually saying. And he’d thought it was funny. Gave a look to Bren, like he’d laugh too. Didn’t really notice that Bren almost walked out of the room ‘cause he was ready to punch something. Mom said nothing. Just waited, exhausted. It was Sofie who’d told Victor that he was being an ass, except nicer.
Then his grin had just turned off, like that. Suddenly he was serious. Told Sofie he was just being a dick, like agreeing with her made it more okay. Then he’d gathered up Mom’s hands. Promised her that he was there to stay. That he would try to get a better handle on his anger. That nothing would tear him away from the mother of his children ever again. As he’d said it, he let go and put a hand on her belly. Then said that he would be there for every moment of his baby’s life this time. Rubbed her and gave her a kiss. Said that he loved her.
That sure as fuck didn’t sound the same.
Mom continued. “I was… caught so completely off-guard by his reaction. And then I realized I hadn’t actually thought through the possibility of having a baby. Because I did want a family someday. So I started thinking about what I considered ideal conditions to raise a child. And… well, I had a committed partner in Victor, a stable source of financial support from Alejo, a source of community support from Ange and Naomi, and all my other kids, really.” She furrowed her brow. “It felt really good, really right, to go with Victor to talk to Alejo, to outline some clearer healthcare agreements. To have Victor there for that first ultrasound.”
Uh… ? “First what?”
She looked at him again, a small knot in her brow. Realization eased her expression, opened it up some. “Ultrasound.” She opened further. Almost excited. “It was a machine. The doctor would have me lie down,” she slid down, quickly moved her slipping glasses from her head to the table, then put her hand on her abdomen, sliding up her shirt and sliding down her pants a little, “and then put some clear goo on me, and rubbed a… kind of broad, stylus-sort of thing over my belly.” She moved her fingertips over herself, as if searching with them. “It sent high-frequency soundwaves through whatever it was applied to, and the display it was hooked up to would keep track of all that and build a live image based on where the soundwaves were bouncing off.”
Whoa. “You could see me while I was still in you?”
Mom nodded, smiling. For real this time. “Before I could feel you moving. Months before I started to show.”
So weird. So weird. “What’d I even look like?”
Mom straightened, smoothing her shirt over her again. “Well. The first ultrasound I had you were hardly there. Just a little bean. With a heartbeat that shook you.” Her smile got bigger. “The last one, at 12 weeks, though, you looked like a little alien. Big ol’ head, tiny hands, tiny feet, skinny little body. Except for your pot belly.”
Ruben looked at his stomach. Framed it with his hands. Looked at Lili.
Lili chewed on a toy, kicking her feet as if it helped her chew harder.
Coño. She didn’t really seem real until he’d felt her move under Mom’s skin. And that didn’t start happening until, like, a few months before she was born. Same for Summer.
But when that’d started happening, though, it’d been pretty great. So cool, and so weird. Carmen got a little annoyed at him for trying to feel her so much. And once Lili’d kicked him in the jaw, when he’d been trying to feel her with his face. That’s when he started liking her. As if she was already a real person.
If he’d seen them, either of them, though, before all that…
Shit, the world was so strange before it ended.
“Was the ultrasound really loud?”
Mom shook her head. Then thought again. “Well, it was designed not to be heard at all. I couldn’t hear it, and neither could most people. It made Victor grind his teeth, though. He hated the sound, but never said a word to me about it.” She shook her head again, this time with a growing smile. “He may not have mentioned it because he was too busy showing the ultrasound pictures to everyone back at Alejo’s school, and reciting the whole list of facts the doctor had given him about what organs you had and what you could do at that stage of development to anyone who would listen.”
Oh. That’s where he’d gotten all that from.
If Ruben had known that when Victor tried to tell him and Galen all about it like he was some kinda expert… maybe it wouldn’t have seemed so condescending. ‘Course, it would’ve only actually been tolerable if him and Galen hadn’t already learned all that shit from Carmen’s pregnancy.
But yeah, okay. That matched, at least.
“So… then what?”
Mom’s smile faded. “Then he disappeared.” She took a breath in. “Then the world ended.” The words came out with her sigh. “After that, it was all about surviving day by day. Kind of just a big blur of being terrified, struggling to survive, and trying to find a safe place to live. You weren’t in my thoughts very much at that point. There were no ultrasounds to remind me you were there. Hardly even a bump. Just the occasional quick report from Suze or Moe or Carmen.” Mom thought for a moment, her gaze back on the coffee table. “There was so much to worry about that I wasn’t even noticing most of the changes happening to me. So little was in my control. In a way, that was actually the easiest part of having you.”
Shit. “What was the hardest part?”
Mom lifted her brows. Flattened her mouth in a little resigned line. “What came next.” Her gaze dropped again, to her lap. “Aphrodite showed up one day. Gave me Galen. Begged me to take care of him.” Mom tilted her head. Raised a tired eyebrow. “That changed everything.” She looked at him and motioned to Lili. “I don’t need to tell you what it’s like.”
Ruben looked to Lili again. She looked to him, eyes wide, her lips limp over her toy. And then she took it out of her mouth and beat her arms, the toy flicking against her legs. “Uhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”
“Yeah, Lilyte,” Ruben said. “We’re talkin’ ‘bout you. And how you’re a cute little boob-obsessed poop machine.”
She beat her toy harder, bouncing more. “Uh-bub-bub-bub-bub.”
“Okay. You’re right. You shake things up sometimes by puking.”
That got a smirk outta Mom. “At least she doesn’t wake up and cry every few hours anymore.”
That was the worst, waking up to a piercing wail in the middle of the night. Like she was dying or something. But… “It’d be worse if we were still living outside.” ‘Cause that shit traveled far. Even if he went down to the shop, he could still hear her. “That’s how it was with Galen, wasn’t it?”
Mom nodded. Grew serious again. “I only ever slept on the bus with him. Mostly naps, at opportune times throughout the day and night. And I always woke up the moment he started fussing. And there was no hiding. Only running. Or bait-and-switch.”
Mierda. He remembered bait-and-switch times. Those weren’t good times. Those were desperate times.
“But it did get easier, after the first couple of weeks.” Mom nodded with her words, as if making them truer. “There was a kind of rhythm to it. And I had a lot of support. Everyone pitched in to help. By the end of that first month, I started believing that we, all of us, could manage.” Mom’s wry smile came back. “Then I started feeling you move.”
She inhaled, deep, leaned back against the couch, crossed her arms lightly over her abdomen, and let her breath out. “Suddenly you were real again.” She shook her head. Closed her eyes for a little, then looked at the ceiling. “It was a wonder. Because you were so alive. And a terror. Because I was very soon going to be a liability, and, if everything went as well as it could, then we’d have twice the crying, twice the hungry mouths, twice the constant potential for risk.” She kept her eyes on the ceiling for a little bit, letting her words fade some before finding them again. “That was the hardest part: when I had to decide, over and over again every day for months, whether I should keep you. Because I still wanted to. But that would’ve entailed deciding that your life was more important than everyone else’s.”
Ruben looked at his hands. They were real. He was here. All of what Mom was saying was over, lived-through.
“Why did you keep me?”
She looked at him. Thought a moment. Bared her teeth slightly, let out a little breath, then tucked her lips. “Hope.”
No fuckin’ way.
“Really? That’s it?”
Mom nodded. “Yes. And no. Because I wasn’t just hoping we’d all survive. And I wasn’t just hoping that you would grow up to be a good person. I was hoping that one day we would stop having to just survive. And I was hoping that not making fear the most important thing in my life would… help everyone else learn how to live too.” Another wry smile took her. “I guess I was hoping for hope.”
“That’s really crazy, Mom.”
She nodded again, “Yeah.” Her eyelids flickered. “I wish I could say that I’m sure it was the right thing to do, even if the cost had been higher. That I wasn’t just rationalizing my selfishness. The best I can offer is that, as things stand now, I don’t regret it in the least.” She looked back to him. Waiting. Watching.
Yobannye passatizhi. Hope.
And it wasn’t just for him, either. It was for the rest of the family.
But… it’d actually worked. Because they were going to the Lands of the Dead, even though all they had was the word of a couple crazy gods and the moist drunk earth that it could work. Instead of just holing up and getting ready to endure the end again.
It worked for a lot of the folks in the Pack too. Leaving, going to college. Being excited about it.
It just didn’t work for Victor.
“What do you think Victor would’ve been like if all the hope you gave him worked?”
Mom drew back some. Blinked. Then she followed the thoughts along the grains of the coffee table. “Honestly… a lot like you.”
The rock melted away.
There it was. A place that Victor didn’t have to tear up to belong. Some place that he just slid into, quiet and easy, and made sense.
He was in Rubenspace.
Something went very still in Ruben. 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. “Can you tell me why?” Her voice was so quiet it seemed to come far away. Like from across a frozen lake.
All was quiet in Ruben. 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. One day or another.” Ruben looked at his lap. “But maybe I can train him better. Make him want to behave more than he doesn’t want to. And if he ends up killing me, then at least you won’t have to decide to give up hope and let Dovilė shoot me.”
Mom was silent.
Lili bounced again, kicking her feet.
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.
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.
Yoptel-mopsel, 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 a slow 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.