It was weird, being an Animorph again. Getting used to sharing space with Jake and Tobias. We didn’t fit together the way we used to. It was like being 13 all over again, figuring out our places within the group and how to work with Menderash, Jeanne, and Santorelli and trying not to resent the hell out of them for not being Ax, Rachel, and Cassie.
It was also fun. I’d used most of my morphs in the last few years, but Jake had been stingier with his, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Tobias hadn’t morphed at all. We needed the practice and Santorelli and Jeanne were barely beginners.
Santorelli, it seemed, was an Estreen. His morphs weren’t as graceful as Cassie’s, but they were dramatic and striking. He often walked around wearing cheetah spots or a dorsal fin, not cocky, just eager.
One afternoon - though it was hard to accurately tell time in space - not long after we jumped into Kelbrid space, Menderash called us all to the bridge.
“Captain,” he addressed Jake, “still no sign of the Blade ship. There is, however, a planet nearby with Earth-like atmosphere. We’ve been aboard the Rachel for a long time and I thought that perhaps it might do us all some good to get some fresh air.”
“And fresh food,” I added. We’d all been subsisting on freeze-dried food for way too long. Even space ice cream had eventually lost it’s charm.
“And new morphs?” Santorelli asked. He and Jeanne had only been permitted to acquire a handful of morphs and it wasn’t the first time either of them had expressed a desire for more.
Jake chuckled. “Okay, okay. Let’s go on a field trip.”
It was on that first trip that Tobias and I got separated from the others. Because he could no longer morph, Mendrash stuck close to our shuttle, while Jake took Santorelli and Jeanne out looking for food and morphs to acquire. Tobias and I stuck with them for awhile, but the lure of the slightly green-tinted sky was too much to resist.
Once I had morphed to Osprey and we were high above the trees, Tobias asked,
<Did you think about your mom every day? When you thought she was dead, I mean.>
The question threw me. <At first, I guess. But that fades.>
<I don’t want it to,> Tobias said fiercely. <Sometimes I can barely remember what being human feels like, but I always feel guilty that I’ll forget Rachel. I don’t want to forget her.>
I sighed, mentally, since Osprey don’t really have the respiratory system for sighing. <I’m not saying you’ll forget her, I’m saying it’s okay for the constant longing to fade. It’s supposed to. It’s healthy.>
<Maybe I don’t want to be healthy,> Tobias said petulantly.
I laughed at him because he was being ridiculous and because it was an uncomfortable conversation to have and humor has always been my coping mechanism.
We flew on silently. I understood why Tobias had asked me. We’d never been the closest of friends before, but I had lost someone and I could almost understand what he was going through. Tobias would never totally forgive Jake, and this wasn’t something Jake knew how to help with in the best of circumstances. We’d all lost people during the war, but not the way Tobias had.
After awhile we decided to take advantage of the feel of dirt beneath our feet while we had the opportunity to and we walked back to the shuttle picking fruit and talking about things we missed from home.
The conversation Tobias and I had on that first planet seemed to bond us. We spent more time together, not huddled in seclusion or anything, but Jake was busy being in charge and Jeanne and Santorelli were new. It just felt natural.
I stopped being surprised to find a hawk to my left just as surely as Jake was on my right. Started anticipating Tobias’ actions and understanding the things that made him need to hide out for awhile. Became the most likely way to reach him.
If Jake wondered about my new found friendship with Tobias, he never said anything. If he even noticed, he probably just blamed himself for pushing Tobias away.
As the weeks passed, Tobias began spending more and more time in human morph. It seemed to unsettle Jeanne and Santorelli, having our own walking, talking cautionary tale sitting at the dinner table and swallowing his food whole, watching them with his head cocked like a curious raptor.
It didn’t bother Jake or I to have Tobias join us, and if it affected Menderash at all it seemed only to be a faint jealousy of Tobias’ ability to still morph.
Once again our supplies had dwindled dangerously when Menderash announced the presence of an earth-like planet.
<Ellimist,> Tobias announced to Jake and I. That had been my thought as well.
“Does it matter?” Jake asked. “We need food, and now food has presented itself.”
“Err, not exactly, sir.”
Jake turned to Menderash. “What do you mean?”
“The Rachel’s scans indicate that this planet isn’t as fruitful as our own. There are nutrients to be had, but...”
“Spit it out, Menderash,” a touch of impatience entered Jake’s tone.
“It’s algae, sir. We’ll have to harvest and dry algae for our food stores.”
Santorelli groaned. I seconded the feeling but had something more important on my mind.
“That doesn’t sound like a speedy process. How long are we going to need to spend here?”
Menderash shuffled his feet and looked vaguely uncomfortable.
“At least a week.”
None of us was happy to hear that, but it had been months without any sign of the Blade ship. Another week probably wouldn’t change anything.
It turned out that not only was the algae barely palatable, but harvesting it was gross, slimy, smelly work as well.
Tobias spent a great deal of the time the rest of us were working, flying.
Oh, sure he claimed to be patroling, or exploring the swampy planet to see if there were better alternatives than algae, but I knew the truth. He was slacking off. And getting away with it because Jake still felt too guilty to call him out on it.
But it had been two years, and it wasn’t like Tobias had any real reason to be spending all that time in the sky.
“Hey, bird boy!” I called testily one afternoon. We’d eaten a disgusting lunch of slimy fresh algae and were back to harvesting. “You want food, you have to help make it.”
<I’m fine, Marco> he responded. <There are some salamander things that are pretty tasty.>
“Will there be salamanders in space?” I muttered, annoyed.
The truth was, I kind of missed Tobias. I’d gotten used to him always being nearby and the fact that he was spreading his wings on this planet left me feeling prickly.
“Marco,” Jake said calmly, “we have plenty of hands.”
‘Can I have the afternoon off, then?’ I almost snapped at Jake. But after so long in a very small ship, we’d all gotten better at controlling our tempers. It wasn’t Jake’s fault Tobias wasn’t paying enough attention to me. Instead I kicked at the slimy mud and continued straining algae.
I wasn’t sure if Tobias had heard the exchange, much less cared, but he spent the afternoon flying circles above our heads instead of flitting off. It was something.
The next morning, Tobias-as-a-human joined us at the work site and asked me to teach him about algae harvesting.
He made a lot of mistakes, being new to the process, and in morph, and never the most graceful of humans to begin with, but somehow the day went by a lot quicker with Tobias by my side.
The day after that, he apologized to everyone for not helping. He didn’t look at me when he said it, but I got the feeling he was apologizing for more than that.
The swamp planet sucked. But once we left, I found myself missing it. It was harder to get used to space, this time. I missed the feel of sun on my skin, the squelch of dirt under my feet.
I may have gotten a bit broody.
After a day or so of keeping to myself, Tobias cornered me. As much as a hawk can corner a man. I may have let him, a little bit.
<Are you still mad at me?> He asked.
“I hadn’t thought I was mad at you at all.”
<But you are?>
“Maybe a little. What was that, back there?” I gestured, like the swamp planet was really just in our rearview mirror and not several light years away.
Tobias bobbed his head in his version of a shrug. <I just. Needed some space. I’m sorry I was a jerk about it.>
“Space from what, Tobias? What’s even left but us?”
His chuckle was bitter in my head. <That’s just it, Marco. My whole life, from the time I was old enough to care, there was Rachel->
I sighed. All of Tobias’s problems came back to Rachel in the end and it was starting to bug me.
<-until I was an adult. And I never looked around. I never really wondered about anyone else, because Rachel was everything. And now she’s gone. And her death almost killed me, but it didn’t. And now->
Tobias perched on a chair and morphed to human. His eyes met mine, dark and serious, “-I’m looking.”
I felt like I should have been more surprised. Or less. I should have protested more. But it just made sense. I wanted what Tobias was offering.
“Me too,” I told him, leaning forward.
He kissed like a bird, quick and dry. I had to pull him closer, twine us together, before he really started getting into it.
And then we started really getting into it.
Maybe it was too soon, or unthoughtful to our shipmates, but we were both there and eager and needy and wanting.
After, Tobias turned cold.
I’m a cuddler and a lot of people aren’t. I get it. But this felt like more. Like, regret maybe. And then I understood.
I rolled away, trying not to feel hurt. “I get it.”
Tobias grabbed my arm, his grip surprisingly tight.
“No. You’re Marco and she was Rachel. You’re not a replacement for her.”
I looked at him again, his face pale and serious in the dim light of the bunkroom.
I wasn’t sure if I believed Tobias, but I wanted to, and that was enough.