The Ties That Bind – Amaruk Wolfheart
Spoilers: The Underland Chronicles from Book One to Book Five. Mostly for Code of Claw, but stuff from the others might pop up too.
Warnings/Pairings: Mmm, no warnings. There is Gregor/Luxa, but no more than in Code of Claw.
Notes: My first Underland fic! I'm quite excited. This is what I would've liked to see at the end of the 5th book, and it's made to be compatible with Suzanne Collins's version. Therefore, I included pieces directly from the book (specifically from Chapter 26). This idea's been floating around in my head since I read Code of Claw right after it was published, but I've only just finished writing it out. Enjoy!
-Rutile's Spectacularly Amazing Disclaimer- As this is the author's first Underland fic, I will make this brief and simple: she owns nothing. At all. Especially not original Suzanne Collins copyrighted material. The End.
Gregor and Luxa lingered in the hall as the others, including Ripred with Lizzie perched on his back again, went to the feast to celebrate the end of the war and the new bond between the leaders of humans and gnawers.
"When must you go?" asked Luxa.
"My mom wants to go today. In a few hours, maybe," said Gregor. "My dad convinced her it was important for us to stay for the surrender. But she wants to go to Virginia as soon as possible." Something furry suddenly brushed his wrist, and he turned to see a rat standing alongside him. "Lapblood? Aren't you supposed to be with the other delegates?"
"It was decided to pause a moment and send for food. It's hard to say how long the negotiations will last – though hopefully shorter than it might have been, thanks to your sister," said Lapblood. "May I speak with you for a moment, Overlander?"
Gregor glanced at Luxa. "I'll collect a basket of food for our picnic from the kitchens," she said, and disappeared down the hall.
"What is it, Lapblood?"
The rat shifted slightly, as if uncertain, before speaking. "Queen Luxa and Ripred… What do you think of their actions?"
"You mean the bonding?" Gregor asked, and Lapblood nodded. "Well, I think it's probably the best thing they could've done. I bet there've been lots of treaties between rats and humans that have been broken, but a bond? Nobody's going to break one lightly. And I think they both respect each other, maybe even like each other, so maybe there'll finally be peace."
"I hope so," Lapblood murmured. "I also hope that perhaps their bond won't be the only one made between humans and gnawers."
Gregor nodded slowly. He hadn't really thought about it, but it made sense that the more bonds there were, the less likely it was that another war would start. "Yeah, I agree. I mean, look at the humans and the bats! They're so close I could never imagine them turning on each other. It'd be great if humans and rats could be like that. But…well, I guess I think it'll take some time, maybe a lot of time, before any other humans and rats trust each other enough to form a bond."
Lapblood nodded agreement, looking a little disappointed by his statement, and fell silent for a moment. "I heard of your bond, Ares."
Gregor couldn't help it – he flinched. The pain was still raw, and it would take time for it to even start to heal.
"I did not have the chance to know him well, but I understand that he was a courageous, honorable bat who will be greatly mourned."
Gregor's eyes burned and his throat felt like it was being tightly squeezed. He quickly swiped a hand across his eyes before any tears could fall, and felt Lapblood's muzzle at his wrist again. He gave in to his impulse of several days ago and laid his hand on the silky fur of her head. That was the thing about Lapblood – she could talk to him about his mom and Ares when everyone else avoided the subject, and he didn't mind it from her because she'd gone through the same things.
"Yeah," he finally managed to choke out.
Lapblood was quiet for awhile, letting him pull himself together before she continued. "You saved my life in the jungle."
"Yeah, and you saved Boots from the frogs. And you shared your food with her," Gregor countered, wondering where this was going. They'd already exchanged thanks before he went to fight the Bane.
"You groomed my fur," Lapblood went on. "Such an act is a sign of friendship and trust among rats. It's an important part of our lives."
For a moment, Gregor's thoughts flashed to Twitchtip sleeping next to him on the boat. She must have been suffering even worse than he'd thought, if close contact was so integral to a rat's life.
"That you would do so says a lot for your tolerance of my kind."
"Well, of you," Gregor blurted. "I mean, it's not like I would've done it for, I don't know, just anyone." He fell silent, a little embarrassed, and not sure he could put into words everything he'd been thinking at the time. Luckily, Lapblood seemed to understand.
"I remind you of these things so that you might better understand what I'm about to ask," said the gnawer softly. She looked a little unsure of herself again. "There are few humans I trust as I trust you, and I venture to think the same holds true for you. That is why I would ask…" She trailed off. Hesitated. And held up her right paw.
At first, Gregor was too surprised to respond. A bond? She was offering to bond with him? He'd already saved her life, and she'd saved Boots, which to Gregor was even better than saving his life in turn. She was one of only two living rats he would trust with his life and the lives of his loved ones. But that raised paw brought him back to the Regalian council, his hand on Ares's claw, bonding with the bat who'd saved his life to save him in turn from banishment. How could he ever bond with anyone else?
"I do not expect to replace Ares. I would never try to," Lapblood told him quietly after he'd been staring mutely for some time. "I realize how very close the two of you were. He will fly with you always – you know this." Gregor could only nod. His throat felt tight again. "I offer you my friendship. I know you leave for the Overland soon, perhaps never to return, but as long as I live you will have an ally among the gnawers of the Underland."
He was glad Lapblood understood how important Ares was to him, but Gregor hesitated a moment longer. What would the black bat have thought? He remembered Aurora's approval of Luxa's bond with Ripred, and that Luxa's new bond had in no way lessened her bond with the flier. Maybe Ares wouldn't mind either, if he'd known Lapblood the way Gregor did. In the end, it was the expression on the rat's face that decided him – one of wary hope and genuine warmth.
Gregor reached out and took Lapblood's paw.
Lapblood the gnawer, I bond to you.
Our life and death are one, we two.
In dark, in flame, in war, in strife,
I save you as I save my life.
Lapblood, obviously pleased, replied:
Gregor the human, I bond to you.
Our life and death are one, we two.
In dark, in flame, in war, in strife,
I save you as I save my life.
Gregor let go of the rat's paw, knelt down, and wrapped his arms around her neck. He felt tears gathering in his eyes again and turned his face into Lapblood's fur. She let him, and he shifted to lean against her.
"Ares would've liked you," he said. "If he'd gotten the chance to know you."
"I am honored that you think so," Lapblood replied. "I wish I could have known him."
Gregor sat with his bond for a moment more before standing up. "I should go find Luxa."
"Yes. You should spend what time you have left with her," said the gnawer, and Gregor couldn't help flushing a little. It shouldn't surprise him that Lapblood knew, though. And she was his bond now; he could trust her. "Oh, and Gregor? You won't have to look far."
Puzzled, Gregor glanced down the hall, and Luxa stepped into view carrying a basket for their picnic.
"How long have you been waiting?" Gregor asked, flushing a little more.
"Long enough," answered Luxa with a small smile. "Congratulations."
"Thank you, highness," said Lapblood.
"Yeah, thanks." Gregor smiled back, glad that she approved.
"Go on, you two," Lapblood ordered, nudging Gregor toward Luxa.
Gregor started forward, then looked back at the rat. "I'll see you before I leave, won't I?"
"Of course. Now, go on!"
In no time, horns were blowing from Regalia, signaling that it was time for them to return. Time for Gregor to leave the Underland. Aurora fluttered in. "They are calling us back," she said.
Gregor had trouble believing it was really happening – that this would be the last time he saw the Underland and the friends he'd made. Temp, Howard, Nike, Hazard, Vikus, Aurora, Mareth. Lapblood. Ripred. Luxa…
Speaking of Ripred, he spotted the big rat among the group of people who'd come to see them off. Gregor walked up to him and hesitated. He remembered the time they'd all thought Ripred was dead and he'd regretted never thanking the rat, or telling him how much he admired him. Loved him, even. Then Gregor threw his arms around Ripred's neck in a hug.
The rat stiffened and made an embarrassed sort of cough.
"Thanks, Ripred," Gregor said roughly, knowing he'd never be able to say everything he felt. But that was okay, because he also knew the gnawer understood.
"Yes, yes, I know. Now get off – you're being ridiculous," Ripred muttered, but the paw that rested briefly on Gregor's back belied the rat's gruff words.
Gregor let go, grinning at him, but Ripred dove back into comfortable territory with some last-minute rager advice which wiped the smile from Gregor's expression.
"Watch yourself. This rager thing isn't going to magically disappear. It's part of you. There won't be anyone you can't take. And you've killed enough that you don't have to think twice to do it. Remember, it's a lot easier to lose your head than to keep it."
The words made Gregor's blood run cold. "I'll remember," he said. He'd better remember. Or who knows what he might do? "Run like the river, Ripred."
"Fly you high, Gregor the Overlander," said the rat, and then turned his attention to Lizzie, who was crying her eyes out.
The delegates were taking a short recess, so Gregor was able to say his good-byes to Temp and Mareth, and then to Hazard and Howard and others in the Underland who he'd come to care for.
Finally, he saw Lapblood nearby. She'd been hanging back while he exchanged farewells with everyone, and when she approached him Gregor stroked her fur again. Lapblood allowed it, even leaning slightly into the touch.
"I'm going to miss you," Gregor said quietly. "I'm glad I got the chance to see your kids."
"And I am glad I had the chance to see your family," said the rat, nodding slightly toward Gregor's parents and sisters.
"Did you talk to them?" he asked, a little surprised.
"Briefly." Lapblood paused. "I will miss you too, Gregor."
Gregor said nothing, instead hugging his bond one last time. The gnawer put a paw around his shoulders in turn. It was a long moment before he moved back to look her in the eyes.
"Run like the river, Lapblood."
"Fly you high, Gregor. My bond." Lapblood held up her paw again, and Gregor pressed his hand to it.
Another silent moment passed between them, and then Gregor gave the rat a last smile before turning to walk back to his family. Judging by Ripred's sly look, Lizzie's delighted one, and the quizzical expressions of several Underlanders, it wouldn't be long before Luxa wasn't the only who knew – or at least guessed – about the second bond between a human and a gnawer. And Gregor was glad.
Nike and Aurora flew his family and Luxa over the Waterway and dropped at the stairway beneath Ventral Park. Gregor said good-bye to the bats, then held Luxa's hand while his dad pushed the rock aside. Cool night air rushed in.
"Come and look, just for a second," said Gregor. But Luxa would only climb up to where her head and shoulders were aboveground. It was a clear night. A few stars were visible and the moon was magnificent.
"This is where I will think of you," she said. "You know where I will be."
Gregor kissed Luxa good-bye and climbed out into the park. Then she backed down a few steps and they held each other's gaze until Gregor's dad slid the rock in place, parting them forever.
For a moment, the feeling of loss engulfed Gregor completely. Then he remembered – his arms around Lapblood's neck. Ripred's sarcastic voice. Ares's claw in his hand. Luxa's lips against his.
He would remember them always. He would keep them in his thoughts and in his heart. It wasn't much, but it would be enough. It would have to be enough.
Gregor turned away from the stone and the land it concealed, and followed his family home.