To the End
His hands shook.
Pain seared him. Hot and wet gushed out his front, trickled down to his knees. Farther.
Something warm and smooth slipped between his clawed fingers. Settled, dangling.
Bakersfield’s wall was right there in front of him. The jungle was pulling back, trickling away.
His foot caught on a root.
He tumbled. Hit the ground.
Lightning split through his belly.
Solid darkness flickered from him. He’d been impaled on it.
Blood trickled down his legs.
His heart dropped. Broke.
Alejo’s snarl faded. Lips falling slowly back into place over his white teeth. Eyes going wide. Then he let go, his hands shaking.
Back in the jungle. Right in front of his face were some of his insides. Strung over a plant and some roots, jutting out of the ground.
He had to make it back.
He pushed himself up. Roared in Russian at the agony, daring it to get worse, daring it to try and take him down. His elbows trembled. He dragged a knee under him. Another. Put his dumb, nerveless foot flat. Gripped the tree beside him. Pulled himself up. Fumbled at his pale, worm-like guts, until they were no longer dragging on the ground.
The last of the roar left his raw throat.
Where was Galen?
No. Had to keep moving. If he waited, he’d die before he could deliver the message.
Hooves plodded, somewhere to the right.
The impression of books and a hearthfire and a full, cozy room hit him, powerful.
That pain was the worst. That long, low ache of longing. His next step failed him.
“Yobannye passatizhi!” Galen breathed.
Clink of stirrups. Groan of saddle leather. Feet hit the ground, together. Pattered over soil. And suddenly he was there. Clad in white. So clean. Blond hair flicking over his face, wrinkled with concern and wide-eyed horror.
“Rube, I’m gonna get Suze, okay?” Galen’s eyes flicked up and around. „Dovilė, mind spreading the gossip—”
“No. Gotta. Message.” Yebat. “Everyone’s.” Each word had to be pushed out. “Gotta.”
Instead of finishing, he took another step.
Galen put a hand on his shoulder. Slipped back fully into view. “You can say whatever you want for however long you want after you’re out of immediate danger of dying, okay? It’ll take maybe two seconds.”
In that case—
He woke in his room.
Someone pressed tight on him. Flowers and hearthfire and kitchen smells flooded in, and red hair spilled over his face, cool and fragrant. Arms slid behind him and squeezed. Warmth roared into him, swelling pleasantly hot under his skin, into his bones.
Ruben brought his arms up. Squeezed back. Pushed them both upright, nice and slow. Painless.
No, this wasn’t his home, not quite. The smells were different. Less wet jungle and more hot kitchen. Which meant he was at Danmairge.
Mom was sitting right next to his pallet. Waiting, watching, a book resting pages down on her thigh. Mouth twitching a little at the edges and eyes shining a little more than usual.
“Man alive, you’re all sinew and bone,” Moe murmured against his shoulder.
His stomach rumbled, as if in answer.
Moe let out a laugh against him. “Well, I’m glad we’re in accord.” She parted from him with a kiss pressed hard on his cheek. “Lucky for you, dinner’s already started.” Then she looked him up and down, a knot between her brow. “Welcome back, bitukas.” Gave him another kiss on the hairline. Squeezed his forearm.
“Mom, how long was I out?”
Idle realization spread over Moe’s expression, and then her brow crinkled. Her gaze dropped to the floor, eyes searching for a calculation.
“Two days,” Mom said, without skipping a beat.
That wasn’t too much time, then. Still, he didn’t know how much time there was to waste.
But… dinner would actually be amazing. Convenient, too.
His stomach turned, growled, and eased once more. It felt good, in a strange way. Healthy.
“It’s weird to have it in the right spot again.” Ruben looked down. Put his hands over his bare, whole belly. “You know. Inside.”
“Oooh.” Moe let out a breath of a laugh, but her mouth tightened short of a smile and her brow cringed. Then she let her hand drop, and moved away. “Okay, your turn, Mom. Sorry for hogging him.”
A reassuring smile curled over Mom, briefly. “You’re fine, Moe.” Then she scooted next to him. Wrapped him tight.
Then began shaking with quiet crying.
This was important.
Ruben turned his head toward her and tucked his chin tight over her shoulder.
“Who’re you crying for this time?” He sent his murmur sliding over Moe, across Then, Now, and Will Be. It reached out a little, then faded before it got too far.
This was the one question he knew was almost always the right one. Because it was the one that let Mom talk to him. Maybe she didn’t need to—but he wanted to make sure she knew she could.
“Sofie. And Alejo. And you.” Her voice was barely above a whisper, spreading softly outwards to infinity.
He tightened the hug. Breathed against her. She was so small against him now. He could curl around her entirely, like some kind of shield. But no. Only a very small part of her was under his arms. She existed all around him, spread out to the beginning and end of time. He was the small one still.
Mom slowly stopped shaking. Took a breath of her own. Thought. A mere flickering of a moment, which resonated out along the all the pathways of time. “Hector and Alejo aren’t the end.”
This wasn’t an answer to his question anymore. A topic change. And there was a weight to those words. A gift, wrapped carefully, and placed specifically in his hands.
Either that or Mom was just feeling like stating the obvious. That’d be hilarious. In a terrible kind of way.
He’d killed Hector. It’d felt right. Maybe because he’d wanted to kill Hector for years now. Maybe because of the thrill of taking a life away. Or maybe because it was time.
Either way, now there was nothing between Ruben and himself. Because Alejo had renounced him. But apparently that would be okay. For now, anyway.
That was a comforting thought. But also not.
“So what is?”
Even as it folded out of his mouth, he knew: wrong damn question. Mom wouldn’t be able to talk to him anymore, just retreat back out into eternity.
He could about feel Mom’s smile. Wry, hiding hurt underneath it. “Up to you.” Her tone was light. “I’m always a fan of bookended tales.”
Another weighty, wrapped gift. This time with a thin ribbon of humor tied in a bow for his sake. Well, probably for hers too.
Ends. Tales. Bookends. Beginnings.
Hector and Alejo weren’t the end of his story. But the beginning of his story was…
… was Mom. Mom’s choice to have him. Based on only one thing.
Suddenly he was eleven again. Like all the hard work he’d done, all that he’d learned, didn’t mean jack shit.
This time it was her turn to tighten around him. She knew. Because of course she did.
“Rube.” She kissed his cheek. “I know.” Took a slow breath, as if to push distance between him and her entreaty. Because it was an entreaty, even couched as it was in her humor. “I love you.”
Yeah. That was as much a cold fact as a warm truth.
But he had spent all this time learning about the Victor parts of him. Accepting them. It made sense that there would be a time to learn about the Mom parts of him.
And yeah, it would be the thing to end him.
“Love you too.”
She held onto him with her stare. Her brows flattened and eased in turns, still turbulent with a grief only she knew. “I want you to know that you deserve to be happy too, okay?” Her eyes were shining still.
It wasn’t a non-sequitur. Not to her. It was important. But fuck if he knew what it was for. All he could do was try to remember. “Alright.”
When they parted, they left Then, Now, and Will Be. Moe gave Mom a squeeze on the shoulder, an encouraging smile on her lips and the ache of sympathy pressing her brow. Mom brought her hand up to Moe’s and rubbed it, bolstering her with a smile of her own.
That done, it was time to get to business. “Moe, feeling up to a family dinner meeting today? It’s about Alejo.”
Moe’s eyes flicked to him. She smiled, grimness tightening it. “Always.”
Ruben slipped from the pallet. “Dovilė, please pass the gossip along? To the whole spread.” He went to his clothes chest.
A wolf’s head poked out from in the dark of Ruben’s chest, ember eyes staring. It opened its mouth, and black smoke spilled out, drifting away. “Your fiancée?”
His fingers settled on a shirt for a moment.
El would appreciate knowing he was back. And… it’d be nice to see her. But he wouldn’t be back for very long. And he’d return one way or another. In which case, she could just wait until he’d gotten back for good.
“She could bring word to Huitzilopochtli,” Moe offered. “If you think that’ll be called for.”
Uh, okay… “Well, yeah.” Ruben pulled an undershirt over his head, “But Carmen’s probably going to get a chance to update him before El does.”
Tight hesitation strung the whole room. Then Moe took a breath.
“Rube, Carmen broke up with him.” Moe held onto the silence for a little bit, thinking, moving to another side of the room. “Long story short, it wasn’t amicable. Carmen, Summer, and Lili have all been living here since… not long after Huitzilopochtli’s coronation. Re-coronation.”
Huitzilopochtli was too cool for any of the bullshit that Carmen wouldn’t put up with. He had to have fucked it sideways. With Summer or Lili. Or both. That’d be the only way. Carmen loved him too much to give him up for anything less. And he’d have to be a special kind of dumb to fuck it sideways like that.
“Fuck that guy.” Ruben yanked his pants up his legs. “How’re Carmen and the Wonder Twins doing?”
“Under TLC-watch,” said Moe. “Sometimes okay, sometimes not. Hanging in there. I think some hugs from you won’t be remiss, if you have any to spare.” More hesitation. “If you’re keen on knowing the details, you really should ask Carmen. But it is still fresh.”
Yeah. All that would have to wait. Except the hugs. Hugs he could do, before he left.
But Huitzilopochtli would still have to know about Alejo. And his daughter and her army. Given that, the only reason to leave El out would be because she might make an insensitive joke at the wrong time to diffuse the tension. But she knew the whole story, and otherwise knew when and how to be appropriate. And she’d gotten better about apologizing instead of teasing when she was called out.
“Yeah. Gossip to El too. Please.” Ruben shrugged into his suspenders. Adjusted them. Brushed off his Lithuanian, to mean what he said better. „Thanks. I owe you.”
„Yes,” said the wolf, before drawing away into his closet.
No point to an overshirt. He might be making it out of his next encounter with Alejo, if that was in fact what Mom meant, but it wouldn’t be in one piece. And if his vision was what it looked like…
His heart sped.
Searing fingers punched through him. Gripped inside him. Tore.
Everything spilled out, all at once. Heavy. Something drove up into his knees.
It was the ground.
And then a touch lit on his shoulder. Grew firm. Soothing coolness radiated from it, leaking in, calming his heart, easing the vise from around his chest.
Like a flashfire, it was there and gone.
“Rube,” Moe murmured. “You’re home. You’re safe.”
For a moment breath wouldn’t come. But then the pain faded—not as quick as it had come, but still quick.
No. No. He couldn’t afford to think about the wounds that would take longer to heal.
He swallowed his slowing pulse. Slowly relaxed his hands and removed them from his belly. “Thanks.” He squeezed her hand, slid the door shut, and turned, sliding free from her.
Moe pressed a brief smile out, then gathered up her Moe-face. “Well. Are you ready to face your fan club, then?”
Uh. Fan club?
“Carmen, Summer, Lili, Sofie, and Galen have all been waiting for you to come to,” explained Mom. “And Sanura.”
Oh. There it was, then.
“Mostly ‘cause they were all here anyway,” Moe elaborated. “But Suze should be around soon for her daily check-in. And I’m sure Sanura will fuss over you by demonstrably holding back from fussing over you.”
Well. It’d be nice to spend a little time with some of the family before getting to business. Maybe slow down a bit. So it didn’t feel like he was running headlong into being mauled again. “Yeah.” And he could do his part in the TLC-watch. And hopefully avoid any more flashbacks. “Don’t wanna keep them waiting.”