He doesn't know what to do, at first. He's not sure how to deal with all of this time – Tobias never realized how much he had before. Twenty-four hours in a day. That would be twelve morphs, pushed to the limit of the safe time, back-to-back. So, actually, less than twelve morphs, speaking optimistically. With the drain on energy that he remembers it being (less now. He won't be concerned with how much energy morphing demands ever again) it would have to be less. And this is all speaking optimistically.
On top of that, school, his uncle, his aunt, what to wear, who to talk to. Things that he doesn't have to care about anymore. There are only four people in the world that he actually can talk to, and hawks don't wear clothes or think about much in the way of family.
Tobias spends his days flying. Resting, perching here or there, watching people – reading books over their shoulders in the park. He makes himself a treat for birdwatchers. At night he waits until the streets empty and ducks into Jake's attic, nests in a dresser drawer and eats runny chunks of cooked meat from the little cans he can unwrap.
Someone is going to notice this eventually. Tom is in the house; it's too dangerous to keep up. He'll have to go somewhere else. But it's a comforting vestige of humanity. A small home you'd keep a wild pet in.
During the day he finds coins on the ground. Drive throughs are good places. Quarters shining silver, pennies gleaming like copper eyes. He could fill a piggy bank if he wanted to, if he could pick up a coin off the ground or if he had a piggy bank or anything to spend the money on.
Combined, he must see a fortune get lost, spread out throwing off light, loose on the ground.
[Hey there, big Jake.] He talks to Jake when Jake gets home from school, even though Jake can't talk to him back. Sometimes he takes risks, sits in the trees across the street or even closer to his leaders' bedroom window and watches him while Tobias talks.
It's like looking through one of those viewfinders, with the lever that you push to advance the scene along. Push the lever down, photographs lining a circular card, and the whole thing jumps forward by one; hold the picture up so light filters through or it's impossible to see. Jake's face, still and tired; his eyes open, gaze flicking back and forth across the ceiling. One knee crooked up and one arm tucked under his head.
[How was school today?] Jake doesn't seem to resent him, talking to him like this. He's responsible, patient. [No problems with Chapman? Man, trust it to be the vice-principal who gets an evil alien slug stuck in his head. If it was the lunch lady our lives would just be too easy, right?]
Jake smiles, closes his eyes and shifts a little. Tobias has pushed the lever. Click, and the image advanced. [I guess you probably know what I did today. You know, it's not that bad? I'm glad I beat someone else to trapping myself in morph. It's not like we all could have done it. You stuck as a tiger? Impractical, dude. At least I fit in around here. And I'm easy to feed.]
And of all of them, Tobias is the one who had the least invested in his human life. The least to lose.
Tobias rousts his feathers up without consciously thinking about the motion. He's comfortable enough but not especially warm in the evening cool. [I'll find something to do,] he promises. [I can't just fly around while you guys fight. I figure I'll be perfect for recon like this. Me and my eagle eyes, you know?]
Well, red-tailed hawk eyes. There's not so much of a difference in the end.
Jake can't risk apparently being heard talking to himself and drawing attention. If he was in morph, they could talk via thought-speech but it would still risk someone coming in finding a cat or a falcon or a tiger instead of Jake. Either way, it's too dangerous. They don't risk it.
Jake lifts his hand instead. It might be dim outside, but Tobias can track his leaders' movements well enough.
So, he sees when Jake gives him a thumbs-up. Tobias reads him, loud and clear.
Tobias isn't living in Jake's attic, by the time his leader is taking nights regularly to run over the rooftops in his tiger morph. This means he isn't the first person to know about Jake's tiger joyrides. When he finds out about them, even though it's late, he goes night-flying too. Dusk-flying at very least; they're in the suburbs, it's hard to find true dark.
[You're living dangerously,] is his greeting, at the glimpse of umber fur and stripes in the fringe of the circle illuminated by a streetlight.
[Oh, hey.] Tobias almost doesn't catch the luminescent green flicker of tiger eyes, glancing up towards him. [You're up late. What's up?]
[Not much.] Night flying is harder. No thermals; Tobias has to flap and flap. [I just heard you were going out sometimes... do you mind the company?]
[No, man. It's cool.] Jake is already turning away, making a jump; one roof, cat-footed, onto another. [I was just surprised you're out so late. You can't be seeing much better than a human right now... right?]
[Well, yeah,] Tobias admits. [I dunno. I thought I'd come keep you company, I guess.] He sounds pathetic, a bit, even to himself. Lonely. It's not like he can't talk to Ax, these days. [And I thought, you know. Tiger in the suburbs. You're a little out of your element. Somebody should watch your back.]
[It's all cool, dude. No big.] Jake could be an orange-and-black gargoyle, crouched on a rooftop. Tobias flaps and flaps, opens his wings to glide, breathes easy for a moment.
[You know, you're actually kind of decently camouflaged. Like, your fur pattern. Orange seems like it should stand out, you know? But your stripes break up your shape. It kind of works.]
[Seriously? That's good to hear. If you can't see me, nobody can.]
Tobias can see him. But he lets that slide and just laughs. [Yeah. You could join, like, a SWAT team after the war. Tiger SWAT team. Bam, no one would ever see you coming.]
Jake always laughs at his jokes even when they're not funny. [Yeah, you know, I bet I could give some kids major nightmares. But the fear of Animorphs into some slugs.]
[I'd have your back, man.]
[You know, we should get you an owl morph. Easier to operate at night. You'd be prepped for all hours.]
[Sure. It's not like there's any shortage of them around the barn.]
Jake pauses, next to someone's backyard pool. Tobias glides to perch on the back fence, watching. With the pool lights still glowing blue even at this hour, he can see Jake easier; the tiger crouched by the water, a parody of a savage jungle beast. Jake has his morph under perfect control. The constant practice, running over rooftops and provoking the dogs to bark, it helps.
But just the same, with the light how it is, he knows Jake can see better.
[You tired, dude? Night flying isn't easy. All this dead air...]
[Get some rest, Tobias.] Somewhere, a dog barks. Jake lifts his head and stills again when the noise stops, with just the black tip of his long tail left switching. [We've all gotta be in top shape. You've got a ways to go to get to your tree anyway, right?]
[I guess.] He doesn't want to fly so far. He thinks of Jake's attic again, for the first time in a long time, with a drawer pulled out and a blanket folded at the bottom.
A hawk living in his leaders' house – that's a risk none of them would take if Tobias got trapped today. They've all tightened their belts.
[It's not that bit a deal,] he wants to be reassuring. [I know my limits.]
[Yeah. We just need you, too. In top shape...]
Jake's tail shushes across the trimmed grass. [Yeah. Like everyone.]
He sees Rachel at school, flying on weekdays. Perfect Rachel, and he always makes sure to say hello.
On weekends, when they're not on missions, he sees her around. Hitting the mall, the outlet store strips, acting like her old self. [Hey, Rachel,] and she always tips her head up a bit, and always smiles then, even if she wasn't before. Hello, Tobias.
Maybe it's creepy. To most eyes, it probably would be. But on days where he can't be a human and she can't come to be an eagle, he watches her.
Not any more closely – not really – than a normal human could. And not when she's doing anything that's... private. He's not perverted, and it would be wrong. It would change what he's doing from escorting her, protecting her, to spying on her. To invading.
Whatever's between them – between a hawk who was a boy who's still a boy sometimes, and a warrior who was a girl and is a girl – it's already strange and impossible enough. He doesn't want to be perverted about it.
It's not like he watches her anywhere anyone else couldn't. On the streets. When she gets lunch, when she eats outside.
Rachel orders salmon sashimi, as orange as itself. Rachel pours soy sauce in a little tray and breaks her wooden chopsticks in half, maneuvers them perfectly to lift a slice of fish and put it in her mouth. Raw pink, filmed with brown sauce, not yet dripping but fluid running over flesh and pooling at the lower edge of the slice of fish.
There's no time for it to drip; Rachel closes her lips around the ends of the chopsticks and when she withdraws the chopsticks and rests her wrist lightly against the edge of the table while she chews, there's no mess, no guts or spreading blood sinking into the earth and drying on the grass, no trace of anything. Just more fish, the sauce still, reflecting a little bit of light, sheltered.
Raw meat, just like him.
Bon appetit, Rachel. French doesn't quite fit the scene, but he has no idea what they say in Japanese.
He visits her at night too. Her room, the light on, homework spread out on her desk, or Rachel lying on her bed. He thinks of paintings, vaguely remembered, the way they used to do up saints; the loving way the light was drawn to fall over their figures, bringing them out and enriching everything, sunshine melting onto them like butter. Like a music box, if instead of a stage it was a girls' room, maybe a little too young for the girl in it, not quite where she fit.
But what kind of room would fit Rachel?
And besides, a music box: she's no ballerina. They'd have to replace the willowy, stationary dancer: maybe with a warrior throwing out knives, or even better, with a bear.
Coming to talk to her sustains something in him. Something in both of them, maybe. He likes to think that he reminds her of being a normal girl. She reminds him of being a normal boy, after all – that not everything about being a human was dull, sad, lonely. And Rachel, that she has something to come back to, from being their lovely war machine.
He spends a long time looking at her after Taylor. Blond hair, blue eyes, a girl that's real skin and flesh instead of booby-trapped plastic and bile. And Rachel, after Taylor, worries about him. It's strange realizing he can scare her. Rachel the fearless, fearful for him.
“Does it bother you?” she asks and he knows that he could hurt her, Rachel the impenetrable, vulnerable to him. They're guarding each other at their weakest points.
He answers as carefully as he can. [You're really not like her at all.]
And he knows that Rachel wonders, because as far as she seems to pull the leash sometimes she needs it not to break. And there's a part of her that's ravenous, wild and dangerous. But he doesn't see so much of Taylor in her. When he remembers Rachel he remembers being carried, broken birds' body crushed up against a grizzly chest, shielded with a massive paw.
“I want to get a tattoo,” she tells him one night, lying on her bed on her side, with her pillow held up against her chest. Glamorous in the day-to-day Rachel wears cotton shorts and a big t-shirt to sleep in. He's not sure if she's serious or not right now. “I could get a heart with a knife through it. Or a grizzly bear. Or how about your name?”
He laughs, because he's not sure if it's a joke or not. [I think that'd be hard to explain. Some random guys' name tattooed on you?]
“It wouldn't have to be in a place where anyone could see.”
He ruffles his feathers. [Maybe you should wait. After the war, if everyone gets to know about it, it'll make sense and you can put it wherever you want.] They always talk about after th war like it's something that's not just a small possibility, practically a dream. When Tobias pictures “after the war”, he can see his friends there, but not himself. Rachel tosses her wheat-colored hair in the sunshine and laughs; the sound never reaches him. He's somewhere else, someone else. Alien dreams, hawk thoughts, whisper in his head.
She could put his name on her hip. Tobias, in graceful script; no one would ever see it, except maybe other girls now and again, changing in the locker room before gym class.
But he thinks, the first morph would steal it away; ink would be swallowed under her skin again, leaving her bare.
“You know, we should try to do everything.” She talks to him out loud. Not as careful as Jake – they're so alike in some ways, everything that's different stands out even more. “I mean, how many chances are we going to have to do all the crazy crap that teenagers are supposed to do?”
Probably not that many. She's right.
“I don't know. Getting drunk. Do you know how many kids have gotten high at least once by now?”
[I know where they smoke. So I have a pretty good idea.] He doesn't think Rachel would ever care about this, without the idea of a deadline bearing down on her.
“Or getting married... going on a date. Going to college. Do you ever think about it?” She sits up a little and looks at him, insistent. “Do you, Tobias?”
He doesn't know what to say. He can see Rachel doing all of these things. And Tobias hasn't loved very many people in his life, but these people... his teammates, his friends – when he's loved them he's loved them with everything he has. It surprises him how much that is sometimes, it surprises him every day.
[Well, if we win the war...] he finally says. If the Andalites come. If they change the whole world... [I bet I can at least get them to give me a perch in the back of the class.]
He won't be able to take notes, but that's what tape recorders are for. There are ways around everything.
Rachel laughs eventually. He doesn't know how to tell her how much he loves her. How much he wishes that this moment could stay, even if it's just him outside, looking in, again. He's closer to the glass than he's ever been.
Night on the edge of the suburbs, and it's funny how fast light melts away and leaves the stars shining. His meadow is cool and quiet, breathing with dusk winds and slight breezes, rustling grass and things he'd normally be eating or thinking about eating if he could see them scratching in the dirt, chewing on seeds, living their own lives. Tobias perches on his branch and watches the stars. Years after Elfangor dumped that first burst of information into his head, he still sinks into it, still trying to decode it.
Some of it comes out in his dreams. Some of it, he's not sure he'll ever consciously reach; some of it he wonders if he's integrated without knowing it. Some kind of sustenance. Some memories, some information, a fighting chance: that's his heritage from a father he barely knew.
Love from a letter, a touch on a blue box. An inheritance that comes with a long battle. Why is it that his birthright is a war? Did he ever get a choice about it? Did he ever get a chance to choose?
Things change. He has more now, hilariously, then he did when he was a human, living a peaceful life. He means a little more. Together, the six of them, the Animorphs – they mean something.
[Hey, Ax-man,] he asks, when he has the chance, [If you could do anything you wanted after the war, what do you think you'd want to do?]
His best friend lives on the edge of things too. They're the odd-ones-out of the Animorphs, an odd little group to start with. Tobias thinks it's funny in a way. Who would expect a bunch of kids to hold it together under the circumstances they're under? They're so tenuously tied, from an outside perspective. What do things like friendship and family mean, in the long run?
Everything, apparently. Or at least, enough.
[I do not know,] Ax says eventually. Jake is right. In the night like this Tobias can't see so well; he's reduced, his vision only a little better than a humans'. [I would like to go home for a while, I think. Perhaps I would go back to school. I would like to come back to earth again.]
Tobias has felt so alone sometimes, watching over his friends. It's hard to hold on a conversation when you're just a distant voice in someone's head – even when he holds these people really close to his heart. Brothers-in-arms, comrades, or something. Not that he would ever say that kind of thing to them. It's way too sensitive, sincere, embarrassing, and unnecessary anyway.
[Do you think I could go back with you? Like, to the Andalite home world, after it's all over. I'd like to, you know, meet your mom and dad. I'd like to see it.]
[My friend, it is a part of your birthright as well.] Tobias is getting a better idea of what Andalites are like. That along with being graceful, honorable and noble, they can also be prejudiced and cold to each other, but Ax says yes without any hesitation. [You are my nephew, and you have a claim on our family as well. I will speak for you.]
[Will, you know...] Tobias ruffles his feathers. [High command, and all of them. Will they be okay with it?]
Ax pauses for a moment there. Tobias watches the shadow of his head incline down, his stalk eyes still up, keeping watch. [If we win this war... we'll be heroes. Your species should not matter then. And as Elfangor's son, the people will support you. He was a great hero.]
Ax has an optimistic view of his own people. Tobias remembers the Andalite, though – he remembers being his uncle. Andalites apparently have an optimistic view of most things.
Thinking realistically, it might be harder than that. But... [I guess if we can take on the Yeerks, talking down some huffy Andalites shouldn't be too hard.]
[They will accept you. They must.] Ax looks up again. [You are a brave and noble warrior, and a good friend. I would not call you my shorm otherwise. Whatever species you are, that cannot be overlooked.]
[If you say so, Ax-man. I'll trust you. We'll take care of it when it comes, right?]
Ax is the only one that really says “if” when talking about whether or not they'll win the war.
Maybe he's just the only one that can stand the thought of losing after all of this. Losing, the lash that drives all of them on, because if the Animorphs fall than so others fall with them. Six kids really can change the world. They're chipping away at the titan.
Tobias reads, when he can. He picks up fragments and factoids, and he remembers one about wave motion, as in water: the crest of the wave outruns the base eventually, the mass of water overbalancing and motion swirling in and canceling itself. As long as the base of the wave can keep up with the crest which is always falling forward, though... then the wave can continue indefinitely. Sometimes they do go on for a long, long time, rushing over the open sea. There's a proper name for that, but Tobias forgets exactly what it is.
That's what they're really in a race with: their own fear. Despair. Their own exhaustion. They're their own enemies, too. They're all racing the curling crest of their own wave. Taking advantage of momentum and keeping it going for as long as they can, with no end in sight.
There are only six of them, really. Six people to absolutely trust, against a world.
It's surprising, how much can be sustained by so little. Six people, leaning against each other. Tobias has strong memories of being picked up and carried. By his friends, by his memories – Elfangor's memories, too. In his dreams he still feels the cool benediction of a tail blade pressed against his forehead, bringing him out of the fever.
It's a cool night. The stars are all very far away. He's not sure how he feels about them these days. They might eventually bring salvation, but the six of them have been put through hell, from the same place.
He doesn't watch them for a long while. He doesn't long for them the way he used to when he was just a human boy, sitting and staring out of his window. He feels secure enough that the world will be there in the morning, that he can put his head under his wing, roust his feathers, and sleep.