My name is Tobias.
It's a nice name, I guess. It gives you options. Tobias. Bird-boy—well, okay, that's not exactly a version of “Tobias,” it's a long story. There's always “Toby.” Although that's kind of been taken by my namesake. Here I am, hardly old enough to drive, and people already named their baby after me.
Granted, they're not the most...human of couples.
“All I'm saying is, I think we can trust Ax to convert between calendars."
“Yeah, but that doesn't even make sense. If Aldrea was already a great-grandmother...”
“Different species, different lifespans. It happens on earth, why not the rest of the galaxy?”
“Okay, okay,” Marco paused and blinked. “So Jara and Ket are our age, physically?”
“Right,” said Cassie.
“All right. Well, at least they're the same age as each other.” He smiled at Rachel. “You ever tried doing it with blades? If the age gap in your human bodies is too much of an issue.”
"Marco?" said Jake. "I really don't need those mental images of my cousin."
"Pansy," Rachel shot back immediately.
“So, have them of Jara and Ket. Toby didn't drop out of the trees."
"But you acquired..." said Jake, "just...no. Stop it."
“I can always pick on you.”
Jake glared at Marco. Cassie, impressively, glared at Marco.
I just glared. <Are you guys done?>
“Well, excuse me,” said Marco, “don't want to get in the way of your exciting plans.”
“Marco,” Rachel smiled, “you're fine. You're not tall enough to get in the way of anything.”
“Your boyfriend's barely two feet tall.”
“And he has a Hork-Bajir morph.”
<Don't encourage him,> I said to Rachel.
She shrugged with the I-have-a-retort-but-can't-thoughtspeak face on.
“Okay,” said Jake, “well, if there's nothing else...Tom hasn't mentioned anything about the Sharing, I think they're just going to let their members have romantic nights at home.” He rolled his eyes.
“Better than throwing a recruitment party,” Marco pointed out.
“Too right. Okay. Well, see you.”
We scattered pretty quickly, Rachel hurrying to follow me. “What I was going for,” she smiled, “is that he doesn't need to be encouraged, he's going to razz me anyway. Might as well give some back.”
<Yeah, I guess.>
“So. Any plans for Sunday?” she smiled.
<Oh, not you too.>
“Sorry. I mean—look, my parents are divorced! I'm the last person to have any mushy-mushy, kissy-kissy plans, okay? I just thought we should...you know. Hang out.”
<Hang out,> I repeated. <Yeah. No! I mean, that, that'd be a good idea. Just come by whenever.>
She tilted her head to look at me. “Yeah. Okay.”
Honestly, I didn't know what had gotten into me. I had always liked Valentine's Day as a kid. You got to make cards and stuff. Looking back, my uncle and aunt probably weren't too pleased at having to buy me all the candy to pass out to the class, but I hadn't known that at the time.
<Do Andalites have any kind of holiday like that?> I asked Ax when we got back to the scoop. I had to explain the whole premise to him—it hadn't made the World Almanac.
<Like humans, wedded couples observe anniversaries of significance. It is traditional on the tenth or twentieth, for instance, to plant trees in the scoop. There's also shorm's duels, which celebrate the friendship between shorms. But nothing completely analogous.>
<Duels, huh? I'll have to pass.>
<Well. They're mock duels, obviously.>
<Oh. Okay.> For some reason, I had a hard time imagining Rachel and Cassie even “mock” dueling each other, but I let it go.
The days blended together, more or less, I didn't have a calendar. Ax was busy looking something up on the computer, and he was just about to interrupt when Rachel showed up.
“Hey, you,” she smiled. “Happy Valentine's Day.”
<Yeah. Um. Same to you.>
<Hello, Rachel!> said Ax. <Did you know that Saint Valentine may have been martyred in the year 269 AD?>
Rachel took it in stride. “Er...no. It's a Jewish thing. I'll see you around?”
<Where are we going?> I asked.
“Well, I thought I'd get you lunch at the mall or something.” Of course. “But first we could fly for a while?”
<Thanks. That sounds good.>
So she morphed eagle and we flew, just like most of our, for lack of a better word, dates. I tried to lead her over towards the valley, somewhere, anywhere that wouldn't be filled with a hundred teenagers thinking we were just the same as them. But after a while she got wise or just looked down at her watch. <I need to remorph.>
She landed, and did, while I perched in a nearby tree. <Tobias, are you okay?>
<Yeah! Yeah, this is great.>
<Okay. You—it's just hard to read, I can't tell what you want.>
<I want to fly,> I said, and then quickly added. <I want to be with you.>
<This is fine! Seriously. It's just, you know, it's a holiday. Don't you want to do any—I mean, literally, anything special.>
<Everything I do is “special,” like it or not. I'm a bird.>
<Yeah.> Not another stay-human spiel, please Rachel, it's a holiday.
<Real hawks don't have girlfriends. Or morphs. Or scoops. Or celebrate holidays.>
<Yeah,> I said. <You're right. But I—I don't know, what were you thinking?>
<I could take you out to lunch, or something.>
<Weren't we gonna do that anyway?>
<Yeah. Just. If you're still up for it.>
I felt kind of bad about the way our conversation was going, if only for her sake, but it was a quiet trip to the mall.
Inside, it looked more or less normal. At least at the food court; we had a couple sandwiches. When it was clear our conversation wasn't going anywhere, I took a deep breath, and, as she raised her eyebrows, leaned across the table and kissed her.
A blink later, she was kissing me back. Nobody seemed to notice; it must have been common enough. I felt a grin growing below her, and it was still there when we came up for air.
“Wow,” she giggled. “Happy Valentine's Day.”
“Yeah,” I said. “You too. Um. That is what you wanted, isn't it?”
“Yeah. Well. As far as...never mind.”
“Never mind what?”
“Nothing. Just thinking if you want to do something else. What about, I don't know. Mini-golf?”
“How long does that take?”
“You'd have time. I think. Probably.”
I shook my head. “That's okay, you've spent enough on me anyway.”
“It's just once a year. Unless—do you want to head out early? My family will be home but we can head for the woods if you want, you know, privacy.”
“Um...I. Rachel. What are you asking me?”
“Just if you—I mean if you don't, whatever.”
“Whatever, no, Rachel. Pretend I've forgotten how to,” I dropped my voice, “read human faces after so long, and just ask me flat out. What do you want?”
“I don't want to rush you. But whenever you're, you know. Ready to do more, I'm...prepared.”
I rolled my eyes. “Oh.”
“No! I mean. I. Rachel, you know I love you.”
“I know,” she grinned, “and let's not talk about if it stresses you out.”
“I'm not stressed out, I'm just not—it doesn't occur to me. Like...can we have this conversation somewhere else?”
I demorphed and remorphed in a nearby bathroom, just to be on the safe side, and we made our way to an exercise store. Apparently everyone else was gorging themselves on chocolate, because we stood on two exercise bikes and mostly had the place to ourselves.
“As, you know, a hawk,” I whispered. “You remember a few weeks after it all, you know, started. There was this female hawk.”
“Yeah,” said Rachel dubiously.
“No! We didn't—do anything. There was just like, this magnet in her, almost. That drew her to me. But nothing of—I mean, she wasn't human! We couldn't talk, we couldn't kiss. I—I was pulled to her. Or, no, the hawk was. Not the human me. I guess I always thought that someday when I was...grownup, I'd start feeling...magnets. To humans. But you'd, obviously, be the only one I care about, the only one I love. Like that. I don't know, I guess I always thought it was something that grownups did, that my aunt and all of her husbands used to do.”
“What? I mean, they had their issues. But. You know.”
“Like I said, my parents are divorced too. It happens.”
“So you—I don't know, is it that my body is like that much younger than the rest of me? Do you people all have magnets turned on?”
“I mean...I do.. But I don't mind ignoring them, if you don't want to. That's fine.”
I nodded, trying to process that. There was so much that had, and hadn't, happened to me in the three two years that none of this felt really important. And yet, if it mattered to Rachel...“But like, Cassie and Jake, you don't think they're actually having sex?”
She brought her finger to her chin, thinking it over. “I don't know.”
“It's 1:30 on a Sunday afternoon, she might still have chores.”
But she was grinning. I figured if Jake didn't want the mental images, I could ignore my own all the more easily.
“So we're cool?”
“Yeah. I didn't know it bugged you that much. Next time I'll just tell Marco that him and me are like two magnets—“ I raised my eyebrows ”—who repel each other.”
I grinned. “Sounds good.”
Then I tried to kiss her again. She kind of fell off the exercise bike, but she didn't seem to mind too much.
“So,” I said, “if we're cool, and you don't mind treating me, I actually have a couple ideas of things we could do.”
“Of course.”“Okay,” I grinned. “There are two kinds of stores, I think, we would need to stop at...”
And so, after resetting my morph clock once again, I got Rachel to sit down on a bench in the mall while I sat across from her, drawing.
It had been a long time since I'd just let myself go with a piece of paper. I knew it wouldn't be much, but even so, I was really out of practice.
Her beautiful long hair, tumbling onto her shoulders, every strand in place even if she'd just been through a battle—No.
Her on the balance beam, tilted at a funny angle, still completely poised—No, that wasn't really what she looked like.
Her mouth, open as if about to gnaw into something, about to grow a trunk—No, too uncertain.
“Let me see!” she called as I angrily flipped another page.
“No,” I shook my head. Squinting, I began to draw from memory. Long, sharp outlines, then further layers, adding details as I remembered them or made them up.
I didn't look up at her again until, concerned, she said “Tobias? You have about twenty minutes.”
I raised one hand. “Gimme five more. I can do this.” And a couple more details, lines drawn here and there.
“Okay,” I finally exhaled. “Here. I'll be right back.” And handing her the pad, I took off for the bathroom before she could comment.
“Tobias,” she said when I got back. “This is beautiful.”
“It's not really you,” I began to grumble, “it'll look weird if you take it home”
“I'll just say it's an early Fourth of July present."
It was Rachel, but Rachel-the-eagle. What Tobias-the-hawk noticed, Tobias-the-boy was able to draw. Only one side of her, but all the drafts I'd discarded had only been one side at a time too. This one, at least, seemed to show that there was more to us—not the picture itself, but the fact that I could give it to her for Valentine's Day.
“Fourth of July?”
“You know. Fighting for freedom and all that.”
“Of course it does,” she said, leaning in for another kiss.
“All right,” I said a moment later, “You'd better carry the other bag, too. See you when you get back?”
I flew directly to the woods; it took her a while to catch up, since she was walking back as a human with the picture slipped into a bag. But sure enough, she eventually got there, bag in tow.
<Hey. Ax!> I called.
<Hello?> said Ax.
<Rachel and I were thinking. We know that you don't really have anyone to send flowers to or anything like that. But...there's more to Valentine's Day than just flowers. We thought you should be part of another tradition.>
<Oh? Does it involve restoring sight to blinded individuals? Legend speculates that the original Saint Valentine may have done this.>
<Hmm, no, I don't have any sight-restoring on my agenda.>
<Then what is it?>
Rachel pulled a large box out of the bag. “Eating lots of chocolate.”
He was halfway morphed before she'd finished unwrapping it.